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Diagnoses

The Lucas Effect

By Jemma Johnson-Shoucair| Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Untitled, Katie Frevert

I frequently lack the confidence to fail. Twenty-one and a recovering perfectionist, anxiety stays close as I begin any new project. “Am I good enough to be doing this?” jabs at the back of my skull. “If I might be terrible why would I even try?” flutters around with thoughts of the pandemic and remembering to feed my cat. But for some people it’s easy. Standing in the public eye, they swagger up to the metaphorical plate, put their dreams on the line, swing, and miss. Strike after strike. Unfazed. I want to learn this technique. To grin in the face of ridicule and trust my gut, no matter how misguided. Almost a year into quarantine, I found an unlikely teacher lurking deep in the Disney+ streaming options.

Normally, I like bad movies, but George Lucas’s writing could drive anyone to drink. It was November 2020, deep in the bowels of isolation, and my friends and I hoped to maintain our sanity by watching all nine Star Wars movies in order. Our last coping mechanism quickly turned into a painful drinking game when we reached the dreaded Episode II – Attack of the Clones. We looked up rules and made some of our own. Drink when a lightsaber is drawn, drink when someone is beheaded, and the one that dragged us through the movie: drink whenever there is an awkward moment between Anakin and Padme. Anyone who has seen the prequels can guess how our night ended. And anyone who has seen the prequels might also have this image charred into their brain: Anakin and Padme flirting in a luscious, green hillside meadow. Even while inebriated, I knew something was off about this movie. Beyond the terrible dialogue, the computer animation appeared jarring, but I couldn’t place why. The meadow scene stands out as one of the only moments in the movie that seem unaltered—no green screens, no animation—but that assumption would be wrong. To its detriment, Attack of the Clones was one of the first movies made to have every frame of every shot carefully digitally enhanced.

Released in 2002, Attack of the Clones reflects the ideas of its time. New technology was everywhere—in music, phones, film—and people were just learning how to harness it. The general consensus in pop culture was excitement: more is more. More computer generated images (CGI), more over-synthesized pop music, more drama. 2000 marked a new era of entertainment with the creation of digital cameras. And Attack of the Clones hit the box office charts as one of the first movies ever filmed 100% digitally, pairing digital cameras with digital effects. The result? A revolutionary film exemplifying the importance of failure. It is a product of its time. A product of two years worth of computer animation, bewildered actors in plain blue rooms, optimistic fanaticism, and a couple of very confident white men. 

  ***

Entranced by the original Star Wars, fans around the world stood in line to watch their favorite characters come alive again in the prequels. Many people left the theaters disappointed and confused, but still trekked with little optimism to sit through the next movie. Soni Gupta saw the original Star Wars as a child.“We had never seen anything like it,” she tells me from my computer screen. She describes the wonder she felt from watching the X-wings race through the Death Star trench, tense and exciting. And how she watches each new Star Wars movie, including Attack of the Clones 25 years later, “wanting to recreate that feeling…and [they] never do.” But even now, any time another sequel gets released on the big screen, Soni and her group of faithful Star Wars friends journey to see it, still hopeful.

Another Star Wars fan, Hal Sundt, was 12 years old when he saw Attack of the Clones in theater. Thrilled at the prospect of the prequels, he entered the loud, dark room with high hopes. He returned devastated. Years later he tells me over zoom,“I do distinctly remember walking out of Attack of the Clones being like ‘what the hell was that?’” 

Every Star Wars fan I know chases the same feeling. With each new movie there is a moment of stillness when the lights dim, and words slide out across the screen. Your heart lifts as you give into the reality of aliens and humans fighting for a peaceful future led by a Republic protected by magical monk cops. But the prequels disappoint, with Attack of the Clones the leading offender. Soni and Hal were at very different ages and stages of life when they watched the second Star Wars movie, and they both use the same word to describe it: “unmemorable.” 

 ***

Haunted by the startling computer animation, I needed to confirm the tugging feeling in my gut that Attack of the Clones held more odd production secrets than your standard bad action movie. Mark McGuiness speaks in a charming northern Irish accent, that’s subtle enough for some Americans to think he’s Canadian. He lives in Belfast and is in his eighth year working as a special effects technician in the film industry. It’s about 1:30pm (5:30pm in Ireland) on St. Patrick’s day, and in between statements about Star Wars, he sips his Guinness to celebrate. Some projects Mark’s worked on include Game of Thrones and The Northman, and as a nerd and “film buff,” he excitedly agreed to talk to me about one of the worst Star Wars movies. “Somebody had to kind of do it first for everyone to realize that it’s just not how you really want to make a film.” Mark says, regarding the unique and unfortunate use of CGI in Attack of the Clones. I reached out to him about a month after I began my research, already deep into a rabbit hole, with everything I learned increasing my suspicions that there was something off about this movie. It only took about 10 minutes of geeking out with Mark to confirm my intuition.

Attack of the Clones was revolutionary in its use of computer animation, the process of digitally rendering moving images. In 2002, Hollywood animators were just beginning to refine the technology of computer animation developed in the late 1960s. Looking back on Episode 2, the digital effects are laughable. But the first computer animation was released just 35 years prior. Compared to the slow shaky lines of the 1967 premier computer animation “The Hummingbird,” a fully animated Yoda jumping around with a lightsaber rivaled witchcraft.  

Unlike computer animation, green screen is an ancient film technique. Green screen, or matting, consists of using a single color background to extract the foreground image and then change the background image. Patented in 1918 by Frank Williams, a black-backing matte was used in the 1930s horror series “The Invisible Man,” and a white matte background was used in 1920s Disney cartoons. In the 1950s and 60s, engineer and inventor Petro Vlahos invented the basis for all blue and green screen technology we have today. In the Star Wars prequels, Lucas used matting in a completely new way. He filmed actors inside plain blue rooms and relied on visual effects artists to fill in the rest, a process was made easier by the creation of digital cameras.

Sony and Panavision built the HDW-F900 digital cinema camera for the filming of Attack of the Clones. Writer and director George Lucas thought that digital film, with cameras relying on sensors instead of actual film, looked better and he wanted to embark on creating a film 100% digitally. Besides the debatably more attractive image of the still-developing cameras, this tech also offered a new speed. Film cameras required scanning the film into a computer in order to render digital effects. The HDW-F900 camera spat out a cassette tape and within 50 minutes, the images could be edited on a computer. To a director pining for digital effects in every shot, these cameras were the future.

When George Lucas birthed the original Star Wars trilogy in 1977, he felt constrained by traditional film practices. Shooting on film requires a certain order for capturing and editing shots. Digital cameras paired with CGI allowed Lucas to put together each shot element by element, the way he prefered. In regards to the assembly line-like process of traditional filmmaking Lucas said “I don’t work that way. I’d much rather kinda go around, put things together, look at them, then move them around again, “then” look at them until I get them the way I like them.” Lucas likened this process to painting and cooking. He worked to construct a whole image from various elements, sometimes taken years apart, rather than capture a scene in a single take.

When I tell Mark that the frantic “Droid Factory” scene with Anakin and Padme, an example of quintessential Lucas filmmaking, took 4 ½ hours to shoot, his mouth hangs open for a second. “Wow. That’s inSANE. I remember spending 12 hours filming a bush in Game of Thrones…So the fact that they did that in four hours is…” And trails off. In contrast, Lucas directed the Droid Factory scene as a fast-paced action sequence where our heroes, droids in tow fall onto a droid-making assembly line and have to frantically escape without being maimed by any of the deadly-looking construction machines. This scene wasn’t even in the original cut of the movie, but Lucas added it in reshoots because he wanted a fast-paced scene to cut up all the scenes with just dialogue. It was filmed so quickly in part because the set consisted of a single blue conveyor belt on a blue stage. The actors then ran around fighting, jumping and interacting with their invisible environment. At one point, Natalie Portman, who plays Padme, pauses from running on the conveyor belt, looks down at Lucas and says, “This is ridiculous. This is just a mean joke. This isn’t part of the movie at all.” 

Lucas responds with the confidence of someone financing his own movie franchise, “It will look good.”

  ***

Layering images in film is nothing new. Walt Disney composited animations over people in his first cartoons and George Lucas used miniature models as set pieces in the original Star Wars. But the editors working on Attack of the Clones added a whole new, well, layer. When I started researching this film, I was under the impression that the movie was created with an insane amount of blue screen. This is true. But many of the indoor sets were also built as scale models. The Kamino set is an example of this. Lucas filmed most of the scenes inside the buildings on the water-planet Kamino in an entirely blue room, giving the actors general guides as to where to walk and look. Then, the art department built a scaled miniature of the set. For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, imagine a long glass hallway lit with a sterile white floor and crossbeams. Once built, a camera shoots the interior of the model as if it were a regular set. Then, George-Lucas-style, the shots are compiled in a computer where the actors are virtually placed into the model, and the blue screen outside the model becomes digitally altered with a background that suits the set. Finally, everything in the scene is digitally enhanced to create the look Lucas wants. To Lucas’s credit, this process does save time and money. But to his discredit, most of the characters in these scenes appear as if they were placed in a strangely lit sci-fi drawing. 

Mark points out that when you watch these scenes, “It’s almost like you’re seeing them pass through [the set]…There’s no texture, there’s no weight.” Weightlessness has an incredible effect on our perception of reality, especially in an art form dedicated to illusion. Humans possess a talent of distinguishing virtual reality from our own, even with the most incredible CG. So this method of forming scenes with multiple mediums layered onto each other gives us the impression that something is off, even if we don’t know the exact issue. I ask Mark if, in all his 8 years of working in cinema and 29 years of film buff-ery, he’s ever heard of another movie produced in this way. He offers up a validating and unsurprising response: “That seems to be very unique to that film.”

***

Much of post production was dedicated to creating digital characters in a “real world.” Against the keen human eye, visual effects artists must work diligently for a digital character to blend seamlessly into a scene with real people. Included in the film were multiple fully animated characters including the slender gray-blue Kaminoans, the infamous fully digitally rendered Yoda, and Dexter, an alien with a mustache present for one scene. Dexter is a large tan creature with four arms, a saggy chin pouch, scaled head ridges, and a mustache with human hair. He only exists to tell Obi-Wan Kenobi what planet a poisonous dart came from. In a scene populated mainly by extras wearing alien costumes, Dex feels out of place. While the animators were excited to create a completely computer animated creature, there isn’t much payoff in the film. Not only does Dex move in an unsettling way, but the animators faced a problem when Obi-Wan and Dex hug. During filming Ewan McGregor who played Obi-Wan was instructed to hug the air. When the animators formed Dexter in post-production they realized an issue: McGregor’s arms didn’t line up with Dex’s body line. Their solution? Animate McGregor’s entire arms to fit the shape of a digital character. 

People were paid to animate McGregor’s body an unnerving amount of times throughout the film. Teams of animators worked to recreate his entire body for certain action shots from the slippery fight against Boba Fett outside the cloning facility. There’s even a rumor that his beard was computer animated in some scenes because the consistency and texture noticeably changes from shot to shot. While this could be due to bad makeup, Lucas deciding to entirely animate Obi-Wan multiple times is a very unusual decision. The use of digital stunt doubles was only popular when a stuntman couldn’t safely perform a task, like the people falling from the deck of the Titanic as it sank. Even now, the incredibly CGI-heavy Avengers franchise opts for actors performing stunts rather than digital stunt doubles. Lucas’s attitude towards this bizarre choice to repeatedly animate a main character can be summed up by his response for why he only used digital cameras for the movie: “People say why am I doing this? You know, the real question is why not?” 

***

One of the first scenes I mention to Mark is Dex’s diner. He immediately agrees that it’s one of many unnerving moments in the film and points out the fake harsh sunlight dominating the character’s faces throughout the scene. “The technology really wasn’t there…[CG] should be used to help further a story as opposed to just building everything around it.” Mark laments that we loved the original Star Wars for the characters. Han, Luke, and Darth Vader uplifted our childhoods more than the environments of Endor, Hoth, and Tatooine. So in revolutionizing digital filmmaking, Lucas sacrifices our beloved characters for not-that-impressive backgrounds. We watch characters walking, talking, and sitting for most of the movie to allow for fantastical, unrealistic landscapes. The world grew to accommodate digital effects, instead of digital effects enhancing the world. 

Two years of animation development accumulated into one of the most forgettable scenes in the movie. Rooted in Star Wars lore, Lucas wrote the film excited to finally depict the hallowed “Clone Wars” referenced in A New Hope. In the third act, for about eight minutes that feel like twenty, we get to see the anticipated Battle of Geonosis . The beginning of the Clone War. Rob Coleman, the animation director describes the scene saying “it had everything that we as teenagers of the 70s and early 80s saw in those original movies, and that’s what you do it for.” All the directors––of animation, animatics, etc––were ecstatic to finally watch this epic battle play out. Except they were so excited to create the battle they missed an incredibly important part of Star Wars: the characters. Instead of observing our heroes navigating through a treacherous battlefield. We sit idly as CG clones and droids destroy each other, only occasionally cutting to the reactions of people we care about. Once again, we witness the creators of the film sacrifice our connections to characters so they can use visual effects to play out their childhood space war fantasy.  

The fact that the men creating Attack of the Clones believed they were doing something incredible is more tragic than Anakin and Padme’s forbidden love story. My heart goes out to the excited Star Wars fans who went to the premier of this movie and all they got were dragging CG battles with confusing context. I must’ve been around 10 years old when I saw Attack of the Clones for the first time, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disappointed. Now, eleven years later, I am incredibly frustrated that Lucas and co. passed over an incredible story in favor of unconvincing visual effects. During our interview, Mark sums it up best: “If I grew up in the 60s and was a child in the 70s and watched Star Wars, and then was an adult watching [the prequels] I would feel so betrayed.” Unfortunately, the directors were so enthralled with manipulating their current technology they lost sight of what made Star Wars more than just another action movie.

To be fair, no one should be surprised. George Lucas got lucky with the original trilogy. We could look past the clunky writing in the 70s to enjoy, as Mark puts it, an “operatic space western” filled with tough, relatable, and entertaining characters. But Lucas had help making these films hits. He only directed the first film, and his ex-wife was responsible for editing the originals into the series we know today, including the Death Star trench battle and the decision to kill Obi-Wan Kenobi. And now we have the Lucas-run prequels. With the success of the originals on his hands, Lucas himself acknowledged, “Very rarely do I not get what I want.” No one wanted to say no to Lucas––a white man who strides through life with the reality that failure usually has fewer repercussions for him. A member of the animation team even admitted to feeling like they were part of a weird science experiment in how they were pushed to further digital technology. From the start, digital effects were more important than our connection with the story. And so we lose our love for the ancestors of Luke, Leia, and Han. We lose the excitement and tension of X-wings veering across the Death Star, and we lose the feeling of Star Wars. All for one man pushing to revolutionize a field years too soon. 

***

As with most tragically boring films, Attack of the Clones hides heroes in the most unexpected places. The protagonists of this story sit behind computers, drawing tables, and work benches. Under the misguided direction of George Lucas, a team of 60 animators and 340 artists and technicians tirelessly labored to draw this fantastic failure of a movie into existence. Ironically, thanks to the visual effects staff, some shots had just the right amount of CGI. For example, in the Clone Factory scene where our characters dodge invisible metal stamps and escape from caldrons, you need to look closely to see that our favorite droids C-3PO and R2D2 are computer animated. In a movie saturated with unnecessary effects exists a few shots of subtle reprise: it feels like our Star Wars again. Amid the smoldering ashes that is Attack of the Clones, the visual effects staff laid a framework for future animators to adopt. It only took failure in approximately 1,995 other shots to get there.  

I no longer want to strive for the George Lucas swagger, swing, and miss. White men have always dominated writing, directing, and starring in action movies. Their presence in this genre is the norm, and it’s an exception for anyone else to be allowed the same visions and mistakes. Lucas and his team of directors pushed the digital frontier bolstered by the prospect of fewer financial and social consequences if they failed. We have Attack of the Clones as a result. A mess of a movie, flaunting the hubris of its directors in our faces as we suffer their consequences. Sure, failure means less when this is your ballgame, your plate, and your fans will cheer you on no matter what, but you lose an important skill along the way. True growth comes from failure, but you can’t learn when the score is rigged for you. 

Instead of a white man kind of confidence, I hope to cultivate the animators’ quiet and passionate determination. It takes a lot of love for what you do to sit behind a desk for hours staring at your hand, wondering how Yoda would move his.  Sitting with a problem and trying, trying, trying until something clicks. Advancing technology through something you love instead of acting out ego and desire for fame. This method of failing is a whole new ballpark. I hold such appreciation for the people who made the harsh lighting in Dex’s restaurant, Yoda’s unnerving wobbly ears, and Ewan McGregor’s arms. They were people manipulating an art form that originated from slow, squiggly lines. We can look back now, laughing and ridiculing their work, only because others repeated their successes and created their own failures. Now we have faster and better lit squiggly lines, thanks to the animators. Spending hours tirelessly trying to create something new. Innovative. And revolutionary.

Categories
Diagnoses

(Re)Creating the Past

By Sam Schuman| Diagnoses | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

In elementary school, I loved few events more than the Scholastic Book Fair. The Halloween costume parade and Field Day were a treat, but they paled in comparison to giving up a whole class period to venture down to the library (or sometimes a requisitioned art classroom) where I could revel in the glossy covers advertising the latest and greatest in kids’ lit. It strikes me now that this is a relatively wholesome way to transform children into consumers, but I digress.

I was a bookworm, always finishing my classwork early so I could head over to the library nook and bury my nose in How to Eat Fried Worms, or an installment of the Boxcar Children. The Book Fair was the logical next step: a whole room lined wall-to-wall with bookshelves and tables advertising all manner of material for the up-and-coming reader, from the Magic Tree House to Frindle

Every year, I looked out for the 10 True Tales series, written by Alan Zullo. The conceit was self-explanatory: each book contained 10 nonfiction stories organized around a theme. Some topics were intense, but unobjectionable: Young Survivors of the Holocaust, Surviving Sharks and Dangerous Creatures. But zoom out a bit, and a recurring focus emerges: Teens at War, Battle Heroes: Voices from Afghanistan (and a similar book for Iraq), D-Day Heroes. Many of these books are essentially nationalist military histories, recounting deeds of heroism committed by rugged, intrepid GIs as they fought for the American way at home and abroad. Reading the series as a kid, I hung onto every word, picturing the battles that Zullo narrated at the pitch of fiction. Children don’t read books with a critical eye to ideological framing; Zullo called these men heroes, and I believed him.

Teens at War is typical of the series. The description from Zullo’s website starts out alright: “Ever since the American Revolution, teenagers have risked their lives to serve in every war this country has fought.” A paragraph later, though, some out-of-pocket framing emerges: “In warfare, most underage soldiers showed their zealous spirit and raw courage, but few were properly prepared for the horrors they would experience.” We’ve now entered what seems to be a pro/con list for letting children serve in the military, although we’re never quite told whose judgment is being applied. The next sentence describes these minors, as young as 12, as “warriors.” Scholastic’s publisher’s description labels their military service “patriotic” and their stories “inspiring.”

With the benefit of hindsight, I see 10 True Tales as pretty gross. But, ideological window-dressing aside, these books are, in an objective sense, accurate. The series boasts that it is “based on true events ripped from the headlines or taken from little-known moments in history.” And that’s the problem: these books are sold to kids as “history” because the events are “true,” which tacitly implies that their rhetorical framing as heroic, inspiring narratives is also somehow “true.” Zullo admits to dramatizing events and re-creating dialogue (which sometimes includes racial slurs, “for realism”). But there is still a false consonance between factual veracity and narrative validity in how these “true” tales are presented. And while a kids’ author like Zullo might seem an unlikely point of entry for a screed on the blurry line between historical fact and truth, this is exactly where much of the trouble lies: to make the past accessible, works of popular history conceal the process by which masses of historical documents are converted into ideologically active stories. To understand this process, it’s important to ask: apart from being a record of a “true” story, what does history do, and what is it for?

The American historian Hayden White spent 10 years researching and writing in order to offer a possible answer in his 1973 book Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. The book studies a number of influential historians and philosophers, tracing the development of the discipline and the idea of “history” across the 1800s, but its analytical framework is fundamentally atemporal. It is a study of history as a rhetorical practice of writing and storytelling, or a “verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse,” in White’s heady phrasing.

White is concerned with how history, as a linguistic construction of the past, is created through a specific mode of thinking which he terms the “historical consciousness,” or how past events are strung together to create a recognizable historical narrative. Historical consciousness manifests in the formal aspects of a historian’s narrative, evident in their choice of “emplotment” (what sort of dramatic plot arc does a historical narrative take? Comedy? Tragedy?) as well as their historical “grammar” and “syntax”—in other words, how does the historian fit the past into a coherent narrative? This formal question of how histories are structured and told as stories is fundamental to what White calls the “problem of historical knowledge:” what does it mean to think about something “historically,” and what is the point of doing so?

It’s here that we arrive at the distinction between a “fact” and a “truth”—or, to be snarky about it, the difference between something being “wrong” and “dumb.” Metahistory argues that a historical narrative always implies an ideological perspective by virtue of the way it is told. Any history will have characters, and some of those characters often emerge as heroes or villains, at least relatively. Certain historical entities are identified as problems or obstacles, and consequently more or less ideal. To take Zullo as an example: American child soldiers are heroes, and anyone trying to kill them is a villain. Other countries are the problem, and Americans killing people is the solution. A historical story is told through facts, but its “truth” occurs at what White terms the “pre-critical” level. The historian must decide what kind of story to tell before telling it. 

The historical discipline differentiates between “history” and “historiography.” Catch-all definitions are unwieldy, but broadly, “history” is the study of the past, and “historiography” is the study of the historical discipline and its methodology. A “history” is one story, built on specific historical evidence and most often presented as a linear narrative. It attempts to explain why a particular thing happened in the way that it did. Historiography encompasses many histories, and explains why many things happened the way they did. It is, as White held, a fundamentally existential pursuit: a particular historiographical viewpoint amounts to an argument about the way the world works. And it’s at this level that history might be “correct” but also “wrong.” Historical whos, whats, whens, and wheres are often settled, and it’s fair to judge a history as more or less accurate on those grounds. But the historical why is virtually never a provable fact. It’s a product of interpretation and argument.

At my parents’ house, there is an entire shelf dedicated to housing a series of nonfiction books that my dad grew up reading in the ’50s called Landmark Books. Published between 1950 and 1970, the series employed well-known contemporary authors, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners and not one of them an academic, to cover a wide range of American historical topics, from Paul Revere and the Minutemen to The F.B.I to a Shirley Jackson-penned telling of The Witchcraft of Salem Village. They’re packaged as factual histories, and their perspectives are exemplary of post-WWII American historiography, with all of its assumptions about American exceptionalism and a triumphalist notion of historical progress. 

The 54th book in the series is Robert E. Lee and the Road of Honor, written by journalist Hodding Carter. According to a biography subtitled “The Reconstruction of a Racist” (note the implied redemption plot arc), Carter had been a white supremacist until graduating college, after which he fought for an end to Jim Crow. Authorial intrigue notwithstanding, the book is essentially a hagiography of Lee, chronicling his life from birth to death as a “great American who was guided by something he believed to be the most precious quality in life… a sense of honor.” The book is researched; it quotes primary-source letters at length and offers plenty of historical tidbits about Lee’s upbringing. It gets the “facts” right. The problem is that those facts are used to turn Lee into a hero. What is emphasized is not his role as the Confederacy’s military leader, but the admirable “sense of duty and honor” to his home state of Virginia which compelled him to side with the South. “Honor”—a term never explicitly defined—is used to separate Lee’s assumed motivations from his actions, trumpeting the former and downplaying the latter. The book’s penultimate page claims that “gallantry is our common inheritance, whether our ancestors lost with Lee or won with Grant.” As with Zullo, the facts are right, but the conclusions drawn from those facts are ideologically blinkered—relative and debatable.

Hayden White offers a solution to this nebulous problem of historical objectivity (or lack thereof) in accepting that historical meaning is ultimately subjective: it is formed, rather than found. History is not and can never be value-neutral. “The historian performs an essentially poetic act,” he writes, “in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear specific theories he will use to explain ‘what was really happening’ in it.” Before explaining what a history means, the historian has to construct that history. The past is only—is always—a product of the present.

This idea was (and perhaps remains) controversial, and critics of White who decry the relativism inherent in his position have raised the polemical “Nazi question:” if historical meaning is constructed and imposed, rather than essential, then on what historical grounds is one to challenge fascist historiography or even Holocaust deniers? White offers several responses, my favorite being his dry observation that “The Nazis were anything but relativists.” But a more instructive answer is that history is ultimately a moral and aesthetic pursuit rather than a scientific one, so fascist history can and should be dismissed precisely because it’s fascist. White cautions against treating historical revisionists “as if they were engaged in the same enterprise… instead of treating them with the contempt and derision they deserve.”

There is no neutral, objective position within history. It’s a destabilizing idea, one that denies history as a neutral proving ground for ideas. It’s impossible to argue, for example, that the collapse of the Soviet Union is proof that socialism is an unviable economic system, or, for that matter, that the Russian Revolution is proof that monarchy is an unviable political system. Those conclusions are theorized, not merely discovered. It may be true that, as The F.B.I. recounts, J. Edgar Hoover was nicknamed “speed” in high school, and that he chose to put his own life at risk in New Orleans in 1936 when he was among the FBI agents who arrested prolific criminal Alvin Karpi. But those isolated facts only become meaningful or usable as historical “evidence” once assimilated into a broader narrative about the FBI that has its own subjective viewpoint. The book’s ultimate historical stance, that “every American, young or old, can be proud of his F.B.I.,” is a value judgment, not an objective conclusion.

Like 10 True Tales, the Landmark Books series is for kids, and it’s particularly easy to dunk on with the benefit of a half-century’s ideological hindsight. But contemporary histories, even didactic ones, still position themselves as purely expository, containers for information sans angle or bias. My high school history textbook, the American Pageant, certainly did. Like many a history textbook, the AP purportedly offers an accurate history that walks a neutral line through historical debates—as if it were possible to find a stance that is not itself an implicit position. Its 16th edition starts with the “Founding of the New Nation,” and asks, “How did the colonists overcome the conflicts that divided them (assumption 1), unite against Britain (assumption 2), and declare themselves at great cost to be an ‘American’ people (assumption 3—does this even mean anything)?” The answers: “reverence for individual liberty, self-government, religious tolerance, and economic opportunity.” 

Along with this self-congratulatory telling is an acknowledgment of the dark side of the early American mentality (or at least AP’s telling of it): “a willingness to subjugate outsiders” including Indigenous Americans and enslaved people from Africa. A putative commitment to exploring both the good and bad of history obscures that the American Pageant has already made a litany of presuppositions about what constitutes “good,” “bad,” and “history.” At no point is the reader pushed to ask if there is another way to tell this story.

My high school history teachers were progressive. We read some Howard Zinn, and we were taught from the first day of our Civil Rights Movement unit that race is a construct intended to mitigate class conflict. Liberal critiques of American history were common, even encouraged. But dark historical facts never contradicted the fundamental historiographical truth of American progress, of the strength and wisdom of our institutions. Besides, even if they had wanted to (and I suspect they might have), my teachers couldn’t have strayed too far. The textbook was the textbook, and we had an AP exam to take at the end of the year. To my knowledge, only one teacher in the school assigned the Communist Manifesto while I attended. He taught English.

I learned AP US over two years, with a different focus each semester: social movements, war and conflict, economics, and finally a history of Revolution-era philosophy. This last focus, known as intellectual history, was particularly interesting to me at the time, and has since become my primary research interest. How did people think in the past? I learned about the enlightenment philosophers: Locke’s and Hobbes’s theories about people in the state of nature, Rousseau’s social contract, Montesquieu’s separation of powers. We were taught that these were the seminal ideas that led to the American state, and, implicitly, that these ideas were superlatively good, if not flawless.

The buck stopped there. With few exceptions, our history of ideas began and ended in the 18th century. You’d think no one had had a worthwhile thought about government since the ink dried on the Constitution. Our philosophical history was strangely ahistorical, because it had been intensely “prefigured,” to use White’s term, intended to contextualize (and legitimize) American institutions more than to stimulate curiosity beyond the clear intended takeaways. Ideological questions were presented as done deals. I got As in history, and I believed that the study of history was important, but I graduated high school unable to articulate exactly why. What was the point of asking questions when the answer was the same as it ever was?

In my first semester at Oberlin, I started a history major, and things began to click. Professors could explain clearly why the study of history was important, why it was an urgent task. I learned that the “past” is often not really past, because historical memory is a building block of identity. I learned to look for historiographical slant. If this is the story, then what is its lesson? Hayden White is sometimes taught in Historical Methods, the major’s required methodology course. I finally figured out that the point of history isn’t to be “objective” or unbiased. Historical narratives imply a historical viewpoint, which implies a historical subject, which in turn implies subjectivity. 

Reading Metahistory for my own research this year, I learned that academic, source-based history dates back less than two centuries. Thucydides and Plutarch wrote “history” millennia ago, but their historical consciousnesses were drastically different from those of modern historians. For much of its existence, history has been a branch of politics or rhetoric. In the 19th century, the first recognizably modern historians gave the discipline its own autonomy by claiming that it could be purely rational and objective, scientific in the way that the natural sciences were. From there, history has alternately been defended as “science” insofar as historians deny any claim of intentional distortion of the facts, and as “art” insofar as it doesn’t have a unified formal method. Whatever it may be, our conception of “history” is itself historical. There’s no escape.

Which is all well and good. White wrote that the purpose of history is to educate people of “the fact that their own present world had once existed in the minds of men as an unknown and frightening future, but how, as a consequence of specific human decisions, this future had been transformed into a present.” In understanding how we created the present, we become better equipped to create our ideal (defined subjectively, of course) future. Such an understanding of history doesn’t foreclose upon the importance of getting the facts right. History is not fiction; its claims to reveal something about the real world only work if they attend to things that actually happened in that real world. But the facts are the beginning, not the end, of what makes history “true.” Historical narratives exist because someone wants you to see the past in a particular way, and by extension to feel a particular way about the present—and facts, at the end of it all, have very little to do with that.

Categories
Temporal Reflections

Halloween

By Gillian Sutliff| Temporal Reflections | Spring 2021

Katie Frevert, Untitled

3:20 

I can barely hear the gunshots when they go off. Yet somehow, they are the loudest thing in my memory. In the moment, though, what’s loud is Ms. Brando’s voice, desperately trying to keep the class’s focus on the role of the president when there’s only 15 minutes left of 10th period on Halloween. A guy in a giraffe jumpsuit bounces his knee violently, while Batman next to me scrolls through Twitter on his phone. When the shots ring out, Ms. Brando doesn’t stop talking. But suddenly everyone’s heads are up and alert, looking around confused. I twist around in my seat to see Michelle’s face, and mouth “Did you hear that?” She nods with a furrowed brow. Someone raises their hand to ask Ms. Brando what that sound was. She didn’t even hear it. The PA system crackles to life:

“This is Brian Moran speaking: we are now in a soft lockdown. This is not a drill. Students may not leave or enter the building. Teachers, keep your students in the classroom, even after 10th period ends. We will be back with updates on the situation outside soon.” 

The room doesn’t erupt into panic like we found out it did later in other classes. We are all seniors and don’t get nervous easily, although maybe we should’ve. We’ve practiced lockdown drills before but it was never something that felt serious. Still, everyone takes out their phones and starts texting parents and friends, trying to figure out what could be happening outside. Ms. Brando doesn’t know what to do with her class that no longer cares about learning about the government. She stands at the front of the classroom until a girl in a witch costume gets up and asks her to pull up news channels on the smartboard. 

3:24

It takes the witch a couple minutes to find anything. It makes sense because she doesn’t really know what to google. Finally, she finds a CNN blast with an update about two dead in a terror attack. We all stare with blank faces at the smartboard. Two dead? Were those the gunshots? If there was an active shooter outside our building, then this classroom was more like a prison than a safe haven. We are on the third floor; someone could easily aim and shoot through our open windows. I wasn’t the only one thinking this way. A kid in a hoodie slams down the window next to him. Batman is our Student Union President and he ducks out of class before Ms. Brando can say anything. A few minutes later he comes back with a handheld radio. He’s not even supposed to have it and keeps it tucked under his desk. He tunes into the channel the security team uses. Over the line, Mr. Moran says something about a school bus. Batman leans over and whispers to me. From the Student Union room he could see bodies on the Hudson River bike path. 

“I think there’s more than two people dead.”

3:40 

There’s nothing to do in this room. I try to read American Pastoral, but it’s hard to give Roth my undivided attention when there may be a terrorist attack outside my school. That’s what the news is saying at this point. It’s all over Twitter. Terror attack in downtown Manhattan. Two dead, four dead, five dead and at least 10 injured. Social media is really a blessing on this day because our school officials have said nothing, besides reminding everyone that we are still in lockdown. Conversations are whispered, heads tilted towards phones with glances up at the smartboard. No one knows how long we’ll be here. Some lament Halloween plans that will surely be called off. Because people have died, and that puts a damper on our chipper Halloween mood. 

3:52 

Ms. Brando lets me out of the room to use the bathroom. She’s maybe a bit hesitant, but the hallways don’t feel dangerous. The garbage can overflows onto the floor. At the sink I run into Michelle vigorously scrubbing her face with a rough, brown paper towel. I don’t even remember her leaving. 

“I just had to get the makeup off my face.”

It’s then that I notice Michelle was dressed as a skeleton today. There’s not much she can do with the bones painted on her black t-shirt and leggings, but her skull makeup can definitely be fixed. It’s odd how people’s priorities shift when in crisis. A terror attack happened yards away from where we were sitting in class, and she can’t bear to be associated with the image of death anymore. So, she scrubs desperately at her face with something that is (practically) sandpaper. The skull pattern isn’t visible anymore, but her face is tinged a ghastly gray, so abnormal from her usual pink cheeks. When she asks if she looks bad I have to say no, she looks fine. 

4:10 

After leaving Michelle, I go off to look for my friends who have 10th period free. They stayed inside because we had wanted to take pictures after school. The halls are empty and washed out in artificial light. I find them in the third-floor atrium, an outlet circling the theater with a ton of lockers. They slump against the lockers, along with at least 40 other students, mostly upperclassmen. But even in this crush of people, the noise is capped at whispers. It’s strange that the administration is letting all these people chill in a hallway when we are in lockdown. It’s strange my teacher has been letting us wander the halls too. I think she doesn’t know what to do either. It’s strange that we know next to nothing about the incident. My friends thank God that they didn’t decide to leave the building. They were about to go to the deli during tenth when the attack happened. Apparently, the security team let kids standing outside the building run back inside. They really shouldn’t have. An attacker could’ve run in with them. But there was a man on the street waving guns, Sage tells me. Did he shoot people, were those the gunshots? She doesn’t think so, but she doesn’t really know anything. We take a couple of selfies in our costumes together, right there in our locked-down school building, but it’s not very fun. 

4:33

I’m back in Ms. Brando’s classroom when my phone starts ringing. I assume it’s my mother, but the caller ID says Lina. Lina worked with me at the New York City Aquarium this summer. She just started college at UMiami. 

“Hey, are you ok? Your school is on the news.”

Stuyvesant High School is on the news because it is now the site associated with the biggest terror attack in New York since 9/11. And my friend in Miami knows more about the situation happening outside my window than I do. 

4:40

The PA comes to life. One of the principal’s secretaries comes on the line. She tells us how a man drove a truck down the Hudson River bike path. He got on at Pier 40, the city pier that we use as our home baseball and football fields. It’s nearly a mile away. He killed eight victims, and seriously injured many more. He pulled off the bike path in front our school and promptly crashed into our school bus for students with disabilities. He exited his truck with two guns in hand and ran into the street waving them. Police fired several shots, eventually hitting him in the stomach. Upon investigation, the guns he held were a paintball and pellet gun. He was now in custody and had been since 3:30 P.M. 

4:58

The principal comes on the PA for the first time today. 

“Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.”

It’s a relief because no one can focus anyway. It is Halloween and for half a minute I debate if I could make plans. But that feeling doesn’t last; all I want is to go home. 

5:02

I might hate this classroom for the rest of my life. I hate the trapezoidal desks. I hate their blue rims and gray tops. I hate their U-shape arrangement. I hate the smartboard with not enough information. I hate everyone’s shoes. I hate the yellow wood and thin silver handles of the closets. I hate the posters with the first ten Amendments particularly the one about the right to bear arms. I hate the chair I sit on. I hate the people who are dressed up, and I hate the ones who aren’t even more. Mostly, I hate the boredom. Being on my phone feels superficial, and I want to save my charge so I can give my mom updates. Which leaves only my surroundings to entertain me. But after nearly two hours, there’s nothing new to observe. Some people sleep, most just look blank. Nobody knows what to talk about. 

5:06 

We are stuck in this room. My body still feels laced with adrenaline, yet there’s nothing we can do but wait to be released. Police need to clear the area and secure a route for the 3,000 students to get to the subway so we can get home. And we aren’t the only school on lockdown; there’s also a middle school, and a city college within a block. A whole block full of sitting ducks, easy targets. 

5:30

“Have you seen Trump’s tweet yet?”

“In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!”

(Later on: “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!”

 “My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you!”

“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”)

Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.

5:33

My mother won’t stop texting me about how I’m going to get home. She keeps asking if I want Daddy to come meet me. He works on Wall Street and could easily get to me. But she doesn’t understand that the whole area is closed. The trains are skipping our stop. There’s no traffic in our vicinity. He could come on foot but I don’t know where we will go once we leave these walls and I don’t know when we’ll be able to leave. 

5:46 

A detective stops by. He’s white, maybe mid-’50s. He’s bald on top, with silvery buzzed hair over his ears. He asks if anyone saw or heard anything. We tell him gunshots and he leaves. He promises that they’ll start dismissing us soon. Since we are on the third floor we’ll get out soon. It’s too bad for those kids on the 10th floor, he says, they won’t be home for a long time. 

6:03 

Out on the street it is already dark. We walk out through the main entrance into a swarm of police and school officials. Students file out in a thin stream and are guided away from the intersection where the truck crashed. If you choose to look over your shoulder, you see the school bus that the terrorist crashed into. All along our route to the train there are police and teachers, a startling juxtaposition of calm people in control and frazzled adults who never expected this when they went to work this morning. 

“Oh, look at the pretty angel!” one policewoman says to her colleague. 

I give a small wave and smile. Because that’s me. I’m an angel. I have a white tutu on, wings that have begun to lose feathers, and a headband with a fuzzy halo attached to it. It all seems silly now. We walk in silence to the subway station—an angel, a boxer, Wanda and Cosmo, a witch, Batman, a skeleton—just a bunch of kids. 

Categories
Cultural Miasma

Unequal Footing

By Lila Templin| Cultural Miasma | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

I was nine when I was first thrown into the world of wealth—and realized I didn’t belong. I had a playdate with a classmate, a pushy, awkward girl who evened out my quiet, introverted qualities. We spent recesses drawing Warrior Cats with crayons or sitting very still to try and see one of the rabbits that lurked on the edges of school grounds. When she’d suggested the playdate, she insisted I come to her house, and since she was the pushy one, I obliged. She lived in the hills of western Massachusetts, and my mom had to drive me over an hour through the woods until we finally found her mile-long private driveway. As her house slowly rolled into view, I thought I was looking at a statue or modern art piece instead of a home. “Jesus,” my mom whispered as she put the car in park.

It was the true kind of modern mansion—the kind that didn’t look like a mansion at all. Only two stories tall but wide and sprawling, with glass walls and a roof that only slanted one way, like a very expensive mistake. I thought it was ugly, but I was also keenly aware of its difference from my house, or any other house I had ever seen. I could sense, quickly, that this difference was deeper than just the architecture. 

My friend came out to greet me and bring me inside. She had the attic all to herself. The basement was her playroom, but she also took over the home theater when she wanted to. She owned more Barbies, DVDs, and makeup kits from Claire’s than I could ever fathom one person possessing. When she asked if I wanted a snack, she called for a maid (who had been lurking just out of sight) to make us mac and cheese. I felt small, sitting at the island in the middle of the incredibly expansive kitchen that bled into the living room, dining room, and office. My stool was too tall, my shoes dangling feet above the floor. Suddenly, my friend didn’t seem the way she had at school—at school we were equals, given the same desks and books and toys, the same space to play and work in. School had been a neutral place where I always felt we were on the same footing. Here, she towered above me. I was desperate to run back to my mom’s beat-up minivan by the end of the afternoon. 

“It should’ve been fun,” I explained. “But it was just weird.”

“Maybe she can come to our house next time?” My mom suggested.

“Yeah,” I said, even though I knew that would be worse— I would never want her to be able to compare her life to mine the way I just had, and realize how far below her I was. 

Instead, I continued going to her house. Neither of us had many friends, and I kept giving in to her requests. There were countless weekends my mom drove me through the mountains to the cold and unforgiving house in the woods—but no matter how many times I stepped inside, I was always daunted by the cold tile and vast emptiness. I could never make myself big enough to match the space.

We lost touch when we went to different middle schools. She went on to boarding school, and I went to my county’s performing arts charter. True to the arts, it was a school full of passionate and inspired people that was barely scraping by each year. It accepted students from over 30 towns and there were no requirements for admission, so even though we had a performing arts curriculum, many of the students were just trying to avoid their district’s public schools. Almost all of the student body were middle class or low-income, so even though I worked all through high school, drove a car that was older than I was, and had to thrift my prom outfits, I still felt I was one of the more privileged students. After all, I was one of the seniors who was expected to go to college, even a private one—even, through a miracle of financial aid, a school as expensive as Oberlin. 

Oberlin, like elementary school, was supposed to be a neutral space. We were all given the same dorms, classes, food—equal footing. This, of course, was a farce, but I wouldn’t realize it at first. Everything and everyone at Oberlin looked cheap, but was apparently worth quite a lot. I already knew the things—the dinged-up dorm rooms, the classroom chairs with sinking bottoms, the rubbery dining hall meals—had to be expensive, because I saw the bill for them. Slowly, I realized that the people were worth quite a lot, too. Oberlin students were obsessed with looking thrifted, gave themselves messy haircuts, wore shoes with tearing soles, and of course lectured at any given chance about the importance of redistributing wealth. But while presenting themselves, however consciously or unconsciously, as cheap, their wealth was impossible to hide.

In my first month I was eating lunch in the center of campus with a new acquaintance. It was one of those “testing the waters” moments that define the beginning of college. We each smiled too much and made safe jokes, unsure of who we really were or if we would like each other in a week. About halfway through my salad as we talked about how we were liking Oberlin, I joked, “Thank God for financial aid.” It was a phrase I threw around so often at home, with my family and friends. My lunch-mate gave a forced chuckle—clearly the joke did not land. But instead of moving on from it, they paused, taking on a very solemn expression.

“I… actually have to tell you something,” they said. “I’m not on financial aid. It just felt wrong to laugh about it.” 

They said it with seriousness, and a nervous edge in their voice, as if they were coming out to me and unsure how I’d respond, as if they were revealing some deep and shameful part of themselves. But I was the one who burned with sudden embarrassment. 

“Oh yeah, haha,” I laughed, desperately trying to return to the light atmosphere we had been so carefully curating just moments before. I almost wanted to say, “Me neither!” just to put an end to the moment, but of course I couldn’t. My cheeks flamed, and I checked over my shoulders, both to avoid eye contact and to see if anyone else had seen my humiliation. They mercifully brought up a new topic, and the lunch continued until we both finished our meals and promptly left. I knew we would not become friends. I was careful who I brought up financial aid to after that. 

While direct displays of wealth like that one were not rare, what was worse were the much more frequent occasions when the gap in wealth was addressed more subtly. The girls in my dorm who ordered entirely new spring wardrobes, abandoning their old ones to the free store. The times people told me about the trips they had taken the summer before college, to which I had to tell them I had worked the summer in a sweltering deli with no air conditioning. The people who had brand new cars, which had been “college gifts” (wasn’t college itself supposed to be the gift?). The time I was put in a five-person English class discussion group where every other student bonded over having gone to boarding school—I obviously had nothing to contribute to the conversation. These incidents were all followed by displays of performative poverty—showing off a funny trinket they had bought at Goodwill, or joking about being a starving artist after graduation. I felt insane listening to two friends debate which form of communism was superior in the living room of a party. I wanted to scream. “I know for a fact you both have trust funds! What are you talking about!” Instead I went to get another drink. 

When it mattered, they didn’t hesitate to use their money: when it came time to buy books for classes, while I scoured the internet for re-sells; when there was a vintage jacket they just had to spring for; when they wanted to go abroad for Winter Term with no funding. Then, there was suddenly no issue in dipping into that wealth. There were times I was genuinely left out of things, unable to afford a show, get a plane ticket, order an expensive dinner. I felt I had no way to explain this to them without overwhelming embarrassment. To address this fundamental difference between us would be to shatter the illusion that we were equals—after all, we were at the same school, in the same dorms, the same clubs and classes. Oberlin was the same kind of neutral space elementary school had been so long before. The last time I was forced to address the inherent difference between me and my rich peer in the hideous modern mansion, my friendship had never truly recovered. I didn’t want to risk that again.

I discussed all of this with my friends from high school who were now on financial aid at other private colleges—Middlebury, Pomona, Yale.  “It’s so weird,” one of them said when we met for coffee over Thanksgiving break. “It’s like walking through a sea of Canada Goose and Prada.”

I agreed, even though Oberlin wasn’t like that at all. So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively second hand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves, and acted as if it absolved them of their richness.  Everything looked so familiar, which made it even harder to realize that I was, in fact, intrinsically different from those around me. I almost wished that they did wear their money with pride instead of trying to hide it. The former was upfront—the latter felt almost like a cruel trick. 

But to complain about it felt privileged and tone-deaf. After all, I was not, by any margin, poor. I had been so lucky to grow up in my lovely little house with my amazing parents who paid for dance lessons and occasional big vacations. I was aware of the financial toll that an unexpected medical issue would take, but never worried where I’d find my next meal. If the Oberlin experience was difficult for me, I couldn’t imagine how it would be for a person below the poverty line. To weep as if my life was so hard because my family wasn’t well-off enough made me no better than the other well-off students who performed poverty. Still, insecurity slowly bubbled up in me over the course of a semester, and I couldn’t rationalize it away. 

“It’s not that I feel out of place,” I told my mom over the phone—my mom, who was spending such an unbelievable amount of money, even after financial aid, to help pay for my tuition. My mom, who had always told me I would go to college, and that I would love it there. Who hadn’t gotten the chance to go to a school like Oberlin, and had once told me how jealous she was that I got the small liberal arts experience she’d missed. How could I possibly complain to her about this? I finished the sentence, “It’s just weird sometimes.”

That phone call was in the winter of my first year. Within a few months, the supposedly neutral space of Oberlin’s campus was suddenly gone—COVID-19 forced these simmering insecurities into stark light. I once again felt like I had left the playground and was staring at the huge emptiness of my friend’s modern mansion.

So many Oberlin students, overly aware of their privilege, wore exclusively secondhand pieces, old JanSport backpacks, handmade hats and scarves and acted as if it resolved them of their richness.

It was immediate and obvious, even through a screen. People who were electing to rent Airbnb’s with their friends, or whose families were moving to their second homes. The girl who apologized in a Zoom class because she was outside at her family’s beach house, and you could hear the waves in the background. Safety was also, suddenly, very physical, almost tangible. There were people who could afford to stay quarantined, and those who could not. I, along with many of my friends back home, started looking for jobs once it became clear we were not heading back to campus. Some of my Oberlin friends who I mentioned this to said I was being so brave, and that they would never work in-person with these conditions. I had always had a job—I was not being brave, I was just avoiding the pit of guilt in the bottom of my stomach that grew the longer I went without having one. 

I don’t need to explain and don’t want to dwell on how brutal quarantine was. I moved through the end of the spring in a haze, bombing several of my classes. I was miserable with myself and my work, culminating in a full day of sobbing when my final transcript was released. I was wasting the college’s money, my parent’s money, my future self’s money, only to perform like this? I quite literally couldn’t afford to do any worse—we wouldn’t be able to budget an extra semester. 

The summer, like the spring, was a timeless blur, and then, by some miracle of coronavirus safety, I was back in Oberlin in the fall. I podded with my close friends, so I interacted much less with others. Additionally, many richer students hadn’t even bothered coming back for this semester—they were able to find other, better, more expensive options. I did my strange three months of a semester and returned to Massachusetts. I immediately moved out to Boston to find a better job (I ended up being a barista) and to be in a city with better public transportation (since my high school car was long gone). It was a new place where I wasn’t expecting my insecurities to follow me.

Of course, that was naive. I talked to a few other Oberlin students living in apartments and quickly realized—due to their complaints of having too much free time, and the neighborhoods they ended up in—that their parents were paying their rent. Mine never would have offered, and I never would have asked. As I started working, I became jealous. I knew my parents would always be there for me, but I almost wished they would coddle me in this way. Work was hard, and unlike my working friends who were doing it for pocket money, my paychecks were immediately eaten by food and rent. I knew this would be my future, too, while those who were living off of their parents’ money (without having to live in their homes) would continue to do so as well. They would be able to get unpaid internships and move to big cities out of college. It would undeniably lead to different job opportunities, meeting more important people. Their whole lives were shaped by wealth. For the first time, I truly started resenting that mine wasn’t. 

Boston was where the gap between me and my rich friends was the most pronounced. I tried making plans with an old acquaintance who was also attending a private college and on leave in Boston. We decided on coffee. When I asked where, so I could find a bus route, she offered to drive me. 

“I’m fine on the bus,” I insisted. When she didn’t respond I added, as if to prove it to her, “I like it. Gives me time to read.” 

“But why take it if you don’t have to?” 

I was at a loss, for a second. I knew that her car was the better option—it was faster and safer and meant less work for me—but the bus was mine. It was what I took every day, and having it dismissed as such an obvious inconvenience unexpectedly stung. 

“No, I wouldn’t want to make you do that,” I finally said.

She paused before saying, “It would actually make me more comfortable. I just think it would be safer.”

I didn’t bother bringing up the fact that I took the bus almost everyday. That I worked in a café. That I was never going to be up to her standards. Before, I hadn’t been able to afford to meet my rich friend’s criteria for social activities or trips—now I couldn’t meet their criteria for safety.

Instead I just said, “Oh yeah, of course. Thanks.” We never followed through on coffee—maybe because she put together the pieces and realized that I was always going to be a danger. While the barrier between me and my rich peers had once felt unspoken, it was suddenly physical. I was not able to see them, because I could not live like them. I had always felt a bit out of place, but now I felt truly dejected. 

I love Oberlin, in spite of and because of its weird rich arts students who want to play at going against the grain. I deeply love the friends I’ve made, the classes I’ve taken, and the experiences I’ve had. But the longer I’ve been there, the more out of place I’ve felt. I arrived as a first-year feeling as if I’d found my new home, and then slowly realized that I did not fit in with my new “family.” It’s as if there’s some piece they all have that I’m missing, and won’t ever be able to find. Of course, that piece is money, the culture of wealth. If I hadn’t realized this at Oberlin, I would’ve realized it later, as I entered the job field, as I started looking for a house, as I had children. But to enter Oberlin assuming I was on the same footing as my peers, and have that illusion slowly peeled away, was an especially jarring experience. 

As a kid I was able to overlook the differences between me and my rich classmates. The older I’ve gotten, the harder it’s been to deny, even when I want to. Now, still, I don’t want to address it for fear of seeming rude, lesser, or self-absorbed. But all it’s done is create resentment. I don’t want to be sour towards my peers. I don’t want to wish my parents could give me more. To say so is juvenile; I always thought of college as the transitional space between being a kid and being an adult—and what is more fitting for this transition than facing hard truths? The facade of a neutral space—the playground, the classroom, the campus—has faded. Still, sometimes, I childishly wish I could see it again. 

Categories
Literary Fare

The World From Below

By Lilyana D’Amato| Literary Fare | Spring 2021

Katie Frevert, Untitled

The night after my 21st birthday, deep in the throes of a mid-quarantine identity crisis, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by my favorite childhood books. Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, This Land is Your Land. I had stumbled upon them late at night while digging through the linen closet for a particularly elusive fitted sheet: 15 books crammed into the bottom right-hand corner, wedged between an old school project and a long-unused hamper. I pulled the stack out, carried it down the narrow hallway to my room, and began sifting through the pile. One by one, I read them aloud, embarrassingly pretending to show off the illustrations to some imaginary kindergarten class, relishing in the visceral nostalgia and momentary distraction they brought me. 

Halfway through, somewhere around A Story for Bear, I started to think about the person I had become since setting those books down for the last time. Did I like her? Was she all that different from this former me? What, really, had changed? 

When I called my Mom a few days ago, I asked her what she thought. “Well, I think you let other people get in the way now.”

***

During my sophomore year of college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In my favorite passage, the beloved, ever-perceptive Mrs. Ramsay describes solemnly shrinking into her interior self, finding solace in her own wedge-shaped core of darkness invisible to others. As a child, I often felt this way: deeply familiar with my inner self, as if we were two separate people in conversation. I’ve always thought we were sort of like friends, this inner me and I. When I was younger, this deep-seated introspection about the life I saw around me allowed me to be curious and imaginative, independent and compassionate. Because of it, I was, for the most part, unafraid to belong to my own life.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to feel increasingly removed from myself, as though I had lost a little bit of that inner dialogue which had, for the majority of my early life, defined my sense of self. It always told me how I felt and who I wanted to be. Growing up meant starting to feel adrift, disconnected and completely out of touch with who I really was.

I had spent the summer before sophomore year and the majority of the fall living with my boyfriend’s family in a small town right on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. By mid-June, the two of us had fallen into a pattern of waking up around nine or ten in morning, drinking our coffee and reading for a few hours below the pear trees in his front yard, silently working on opposite ends of the long, oak dining room table until three or four in the afternoon, and then driving through town around 4:30 to take a swim in the Connecticut River before dinner. I was giddily happy, content to exist in a faraway place for a little while. 

But, sometime around the beginning of August, I began to feel as though I was looking out at the world from someone else’s eyes. Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his. I wouldn’t have the words to express it until several months later, but that summer I came to devote every part of myself to a life that didn’t really belong to me, rarely engaging with my inner self so as to fully ingratiate myself in someone else’s thoughts and opinions and routines. My self-image had become untenable because I was constantly living out another person’s fictionalized version of me. By the end of September, it became clear that I had become so concerned with belonging to someone else’s life that I had seemingly forgotten to belong to my own. When the relationship ended in November, I was left without any understanding of who I was without it.

A few weeks after, on that night when I sat enveloped by all those artifacts of my childhood, I recognized that my conception of my most authentic self and my innermost truisms were all wrapped up in those books. As I ran my fingers across the front covers of Lili at Ballet and The Adventures of Frog and Toad and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I imagined myself at four or five years old, my auburn hair poking out from behind my ears as I sat tucked under my father’s arm in the cushy brown leather chair that used to sit in the corner of my brother’s bedroom. I can almost hear the soft rasp of his voice as he reads me Sleepy Bears before bed. Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn. As he reads, I can hear my mother brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall, our cats Wonder and Punk mewing below her feet. My brother rustles in bed. The old oak tree that used to loom outside my bedroom window still stands tall. It fell down suddenly in 2007 after being struck by lightning, but for most of my childhood it was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Now, all these years later, once again hearing the rhymes and cadences of my childhood, I felt closer to myself than I had in a very long time. I realized that the books I read as a child have come to represent a time when I was just beginning to understand who I wanted to be and yet, paradoxically knew exactly who I was. 

I don’t think mine is an isolated experience. Children’s literature is often one of a child’s first introductions to expressions of empathy, imagination, and self-awareness. These books influence the way we navigate the lives around us; the way we come to understand the world is entirely shaped by the sites and experiences we explore as children. They offer a vocabulary for children to construct their identities, yet are never deemed especially consequential because of their seemingly elementary lessons. Unlike complex opuses like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or James Baldwin’s Another Country, children’s literature is rarely seen as self-defining. What if we considered Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are to be as powerful as any other piece of literature? Could it be that those books were some of the most formative, provocative, and honest ones of our lives?

Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his.

In Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, he argues that “the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in its execution, as the best adult literature” because it introduces ideas and stories which often go unexplored by adults. These books deal with deeply personal issues—loneliness, death, and the loss of innocence, to mention a few—in imaginative and honest ways, helping children to broaden and stretch their minds, flesh out the complex bonds they have with those around them, cope with conflicting emotions, understand their role in families and neighborhoods, and define the journey from childhood to adulthood. Even more important, Handy contends, is the act of revisiting these works as an adult. In one early chapter he quotes speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who says that while “revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia”—she had known a woman who reread The Wizard of Oz every few years because it helped her to remember being a child—“[in] returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.” 

***

A few summers back, I wandered into my favorite bookstore in New York City: the wooden cathedral that is the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street. I’ve always said that buying a new book is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have. Curiosity swells and a desire for a new reality percolates just below as you find another world to imagine yourself in. On this particular day, I climbed the winding staircase above the mystery section to stand before the $1 book shelf. There, hidden beside a monstrous poetry anthology, I rediscovered The Little Prince. I had read it once or twice as a child, enjoying its sweet illustrations and to-the-point dialogue, but only as a freshly coronated 20-something did I really discover its remarkable power. 

The book begins with a drawing of a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole, only, to adults, the drawing looks like a hat. When the narrator shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups, he asks them whether he has frightened them. “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” When the narrator tries to further explain that the drawing depicts a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the adults advise him to lay aside his drawings of boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole and instead focus on geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Frustrated, he declares that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

American novelist and academic Alison Laurie is fascinated by this moment in The Little Prince. She calls it subversive, because it mocks unsympathetic adult life by looking at the world from below. In her book Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Laurie explains that the most discerning children’s authors “have the ability to look at the world from below and note its less respectable aspects, just as little children playing on the floor can see the chewing gum stuck to the underside of polished mahogany tables and the hems of silk dresses held up with safety pins.” These books appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within all of us. Sitting on my bed that night, encompassed by my childhood memories and associations, I came face to face with the reality that I had lost my inner self to the confining realities of adulthood, narrowed my conception of myself and the world around me. Those books were a glimpse into a bygone sanctuary.

But not all children’s literature is as illuminating. The New England Primer, largely thought to be the first piece of American children’s literature, was published in Boston around 1690. It’s prescriptive and condescending, very obviously written by an adult to serve adult expectations. In one of its numerous editions, the lesson reads:

Love God.

Use no ill words.

Fear God.

Tell no lies.

Serve God.

Hate Lies.

I don’t know any child who would enjoy that. Often, as is apparent here, unsuccessful children’s literature is filled with pragmatism, offering a “realistic” portrait of what adult life is actually like. Unimaginatively and pedantically, these books attempt to prepare children for the rigid, commercial ways of the world. But, according to Laurie, this adult society doesn’t exist: “the world [is] full of hostile, stupid giants.”

***

The most perceptive children’s book authors somehow manage to stay children all their lives, never losing the ability to see the world from below. In an interview with the New York Times, Maurice Sendak criticized contemporary children’s literature for catering too much to parents, going by the “rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.”

Sendak’s entire children’s book philosophy is dependent upon the idea that children shouldn’t be kept from the world, locked within a safe haven where nothing bad happens. Instead, he argues, children’s authors should simultaneously reckon with childhood innocence and the harsh realities of life. His books deal with the darker sides of growing up, creatively and authentically helping children to process the hardships they face. In Where the Wild Things Are, a disgruntled little boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper. As he stews in bed, a jungle grows around him and he sails off to a land of the wild things, populated by huge monsters with claws. Fearlessly, Max tames the wild things, who roar that he is the wildest of them all and make him their king. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start,” and he and the wild things dance in the moonlight and hang from the trees, until Max realizes he misses his mother’s love. Although the wild things beg their king to stay, young Max returns to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him. 

Met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1963, the book has since been heralded as a classic, celebrated for its depiction and acceptance of children’s emotions, particularly anger. What I love most about this book, though, is that Sendak doesn’t hide anything. He’s not trying to coerce anyone to be anything other than who they are, or teach someone a valuable lesson. He has no motives other than to tell a story about the way he sees the world. It’s not a very pretty world—it’s not always a very nice one, it’s full of seemingly cruel people who do seemingly cruel things—but it is real. And not real in the way that The New England Primer is real. Where the Wild Things Are is not prescriptive, it’s not trying to get you to be a better part of society or get you to buy into some larger conventional narrative, it just introduces you to the way you work. To the thoughts you may or may not have when faced with frustration or disappointment. It looks at the world from below, warts and all.

Although Sendak’s work will forever be near the top of my list, E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and—arguably one of my favorite books of all time—Charlotte’s Web, will always remain my favorite children’s book author. In preparation for this piece, I spent the better part of one Thursday evening rereading White’s transcendent monument to children’s literature. I had coincidentally stumbled upon the book while perusing a public bookcase in Oberlin and realized I hadn’t reread it since the end of first grade. So here I was, a 21 year-old, mixed-up, hungover college student, sobbing her eyes out to Charlotte’s Web at five in the afternoon. I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without tearing up: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Forget it. I called one of my friends from elementary school and we both started reminiscing about the first time we heard that sentence.

In our class, we would pick a new chapter book every month to read aloud. That April, the majority ruled that after lunch everyday, Mrs. Downs would sit back in the plush armchair in the corner of the classroom, twenty seven-year-olds nestled on the floor at her feet, and read Charlotte’s Web. I think it was the first book that made me cry. Like Sendak, White’s prose is spare, but burgeoning with fearless and beautiful honesty. The book is about death, plain and true and harsh, but it is also full of life and all of the things that make it worth living. In one of the most compelling scenes, Fern, a young girl who saves a newborn piglet from being murdered, confronts her father as she explains the horror of killing the pig:

‘But it’s unfair’ cried Fern. ‘The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?’

Mr. Arable smiled. ‘Certainly not,’ he said, looking down at his daughter with love. ‘But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another’

‘I see no difference,’ replied Fern, still hanging onto the ax.

‘This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of’

A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.

As a child, Fern sees the world from below, unclouded by convention and cynicism. White’s language is subversive, pointing out the flaws in grown-up understandings of life. Arguably, this moment is more illuminating for adults, juxtaposing the world as it is, as a child sees it, with the warped world we have all come to accept. Charlotte’s Web is about serious, traumatic experiences, and yet, it isn’t hard to comprehend. White’s portrayal of death reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book The Dead Bird, which reads, “Every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” That’s how you write about death. White and Brown alike get straight to the heart of things, unfettered by wordy ruminations and tangents.

In one of my favorite essays of White’s, his introduction in the third edition of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, he praises his former college professor William Strunk for instilling in him the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The book, a collection of writing dos and don’ts, hasn’t left my side in the last couple years because I’m so enamored with its vigor and pith. Just like Sendak (and Didion and Vonnegut and Bukowski), Strunk and White don’t want to trick you. They want your writing to be beautiful and thought-provoking and electrifying, but never complicated. Never so difficult that you have to put a book down to understand what it’s trying to say. This, to me, is what makes Charlotte’s Web so important. There’s nothing superfluous; it gives the reader room to come up with how they feel on their own. 

I think this is what makes children’s books, and the act of revisiting them as an adult, so invaluable. In a way, you are returning to a thing and a time that is decidedly simple—and I don’t mean in a stupid or banal way. On the contrary, I think good children’s literature gets to the root of what it means to understand the world and people around you, to embrace selfhood, and, really, to understand the essence of what it means to be human without writing a sentence that is three pages long. It delivers information in no uncertain terms. There is no overwriting or overstating or big, scary, fancy words; there is just the world as a child sees it. There is just the world as it is. To revisit these books as an adult, Laurie says, offers “a way into a lost world, not only of childhood, but of universal power and meaning.”

She encourages readers to return to their children’s books as a way to reconnect with their childhood selves. There, she argues, lies the foundation of our most genuine, self-fulfilled, and actualized selves. Too often, Laurie writes, “as we leave the tribal culture of childhood—and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes—behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children’s literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.”

It is through this act of rediscovery that we begin to sew ourselves up again. Throughout our lives, having endured suffering and embarrassment and rejection, we become fragmented by judgement and cruelty, both readily given and received. As a result, we lose touch with who we actually are, with our cores of darkness. We feel the way that I felt in Vermont: like a stranger, alienated from my interior self. Children’s books help you to relearn and embrace the world as a child does, with levity and resolute selfhood, offering us a vital opportunity to return to the world as it is, without all that complicated, unreadable, pedantic junk flying around. I think we spend the majority of our lives chasing the high of childhood, chasing a time before we let our perception of the world become muddled by the hurt of adulthood. 

Now, as I sit at the desk in my dorm room, again surrounded by piles of my childhood books, I realize I don’t have any new answers. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel as though I had them right in front of me all along. In these past months, having read Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, and This Land is Your Land over and over and over again, I feel as though I’ve returned to myself. I’ve found solace and comfort in this world from below, in this world as it is.

Categories
Voices

A Lizzy-Shaped Space

by Ally Chase | Voices | Spring 2021

Vincent Zhu, Crack (series)

The closeness and hope of female friendship.


“First of all:

I am tired.
I am true of heart!

And also:

You are tired. You are true of heart!”

– Dave Eggers

I met Lizzy on the first day of gym class, almost exactly in the middle of high school. Having spent all of my adolescence concerned, and not particularly satisfied, with the ways friendship functioned in my life, making a new friend at this point was like coming to a clearing halfway through a long, uphill hike. As a kid my shelves were filled with stories of forgiveness and generosity, companionship a force so strong in these books that it shimmered above the page. I loved to imagine myself as half of one of those duos of friends who were completely fulfilled by the company of the other person and thus unafraid, even content, to stand together against the rest of the world. When the characters you hope to see in yourself pass loyalty between them like breathing, building secret worlds that resist all time and distance, it’s nearly impossible to keep your expectations from getting lost somewhere among the rafters of the library ceiling.  

Then all of a sudden it becomes true: You meet someone, just as I met Lizzy on that morning many Januaries ago, and it feels like the most fortunate gift of chance you’ve ever received. I know now that luck is only good for the first few minutes; it’s not enough on its own to propel a friendship toward longevity. I couldn’t see then exactly how this friendship would take shape—you reach that depth of understanding only with time. But the class periods I spent getting to know her were pockets of joy in otherwise monotonous winter days. Fifty-five minutes on weekday mornings turned into eating her Teddy Grahams at lunch and watching The Bachelor on Monday nights so we could whisper about it in between yoga poses. And on Good Friday, on the first truly warm afternoon of what I remember as an unusually sunny spring, I took Lizzy’s school bus back to her house and sat around a bonfire with her family, to hear stories of their days and lives.

If meeting Lizzy was a gift, each day I know her is a day I get to keep unwrapping it. I suppose we all wish our friends could see themselves in the ways we do, because everything Lizzy touches ends up better than how she found it. Being a witness to this magic makes me more sure of my words before they come out of my mouth, and pushes me to think longer about what is really the right thing to do. Her thoughtfulness forgets no one and nothing, her careful consideration borders on an indecisiveness we share. I hear her words of compassion and insight long after I’ve hung up the phone, but the look of tranquil concern on her face as she listens to me says enough. Devotion can be the simplest thing, simpler than we need to find words for. She shows me that a good friendship coaxes out the parts of us we may never see animated if not for a person who has taken the time to understand them. 

All I’ve read has told me that throughout time, a friendship has been a room where philosophical as well as emotional exchanges paper the walls and cover the floors. My own experiences confirm this idea; friendship has manifested in exactly the right places and in enough ways to prove itself a necessity that is, like all traditions worth observing, simultaneously changing and continuing. Yet as I’ve gotten older I’ve also seen how abruptly a friendship can shift—one person’s energies get redirected, a very different object of love takes up space where there is none, and time falls away. 

Having a friend means you hope unequivocally, as you know she hopes for you, that the easiest, most comfortable kind of love finds her at the moment she most needs it. Lizzy and I have been there before, where something so wonderful fell into her lap that she needed to hold it with both hands. The hands that had been around my shoulders, that had reached down to pick up anything I had dropped. It was a dazed, disconnected year for me, feeling cut off at the knees, driving home alone after school. Not quite knowing how to carry Lizzy’s bounty and my loss at the same time. 

And yet it passed. We hardly bring it up anymore; that time reflects harshly on us both, and it seems ridiculous, impossible even, considering all that we have now and all I have learned since then. Now, from the other side, I spend time wondering about how life would be if we treated friendship and partner romance with the same reverence, two pillars of intimacy meant to bear equal amounts of our emotional weight. I have an idea of what that could look like; my future has a Lizzy-shaped space drawn into it. It’s a relief to know this expectation is not just an intention, but a fact of reality I can take for granted. Now it seems the endurance of this friendship will make the unknown future ahead of us bearable, even welcome. In her memoir Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett writes about her late friend Lucy Grealy, “We were better off when we were together. Together we were a small society of ambition and high ideals. We were tender and patient and kind. We were not like the world at all.” Lizzy and I talk of grad school together, of sharing an apartment, of our children tacking “aunt” in front of the other person’s name. I have dreams of the two of us at a kitchen table, after all partners and kids have gone to sleep, the last night of a dreamlike summer week. (No doubt we will have deliberated all year between the beach and the mountains, each person hoping the other would just make the decision for us.) We are sitting beside each other in comfortable silence, mugs of tea between us, wondering which of us played every single one of her cards right. 

Lizzy and I have other dreams, too, ones not so much rooted in time but in feeling. Like maybe one day, we won’t have to wonder any longer when it will subside—that sensation of waiting for something, for our directions to line up with our destinations. The gauzy clouds of uncertainty that seem to surround us as we move through our lives will part, and we will find an understanding in the daily goodness of the world and our purposes in it that lets us forget about the looming what-ifs. And one day, the vague and fickle sadness that sneaks in through some drafty window is suddenly unable to push its way through, and the contentment we’ve been searching for will be just there—will have been just out of view this whole time.

As much as Lizzy and I may anticipate whatever lies on the other side of now, the past will always be next to where we stand; it’s true that we may be too comfortable there. In college they teach you that the more you recall a memory, the more vulnerable it becomes. Every time you think of it, that old image of what really happened mixes with your present state of mind to produce a more or less false account of the truth. But much of my time these days I supplement with remembrance; just looking at the way the wind moves through the grass makes me think of riding my bike behind Lizzy on Balcom Street on any given day last summer. And still, sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September, not fully imagining until it was too late what it could have looked like to spend four more years with a person who knew as well as I did that I would always ask for chocolate sprinkles on my cone. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton said of Susan B. Anthony, “So closely interwoven have been our lives, our purposes, and experiences, that, separated, we have a feeling of incompleteness.” And while physical separation keeps Lizzy and me apart more than anything else (recently we realized there will be a single day between when she returns home from school and when I start my next semester), just layering a moment we shared many months ago onto a day we spend apart makes it complete. It isn’t that I want to remember my way back into the past, so much as I hope to bring the past up to meet me where I am. That way, when the sun sets over the river I walk to every week, a hat pulled over my ears and my raw frozen hands stuffed into my pockets, the sky I’m seeing is the one Lizzy and I stared into at the beginning of last July. Each night that weekend we sat with our feet dangling off the dock, watching as a burning sun poured itself out for us in shades of pink against the sky, before it sank down to become the dark smooth ripples of the lake. I figure if such a moment of light lodges itself behind my eyes, why shouldn’t I let it refract onto an otherwise unremarkable instance and paint the whole thing a warm, Lizzy-tinted shade?

Sometimes when I eat ice cream, I think of sitting together in the Ben & Jerry’s by the college I didn’t want to go to, the one my parents were silently rooting for, the one Lizzy would enroll in come September.

In some ways I feel no one knows what it is to have a friend the way I have Lizzy. Yet in other ways it is even more special to imagine there was a version of our friendship that existed between other people long before we came along. Because really, it always happens in the same way—Ann and Lucy; Elizabeth and Susan. First you find someone you can grow up with, and as you two become yourselves alongside one another you can’t help but take in parts of the other person. And the pieces of herself she decides she no longer likes, or has grown out of, or wants to change completely—you put those in your pocket. You keep the endless versions of who she was and who she hopes to be right next those versions of yourself, so one day when you’re both old women, you can say to each other, “I saved this for you, because I thought you may want it later,” and you can spill everything out onto the table, sifting through the memories you share and the ones you don’t, because at this point it’s all the same. You will find that everything you have lived she has lived, because she has stayed with you in every way imaginable.

So the story of me and Lizzy goes on every day, whether we know we’re writing it or not. Thoreau offers that the language of friendship is not words, but meaning. And while what Lizzy and I do best is talk and listen, we struggled with how to say our most recent goodbye, with how to make the other person understand. Not that we didn’t have any words left between us, but what could I possibly say to express how I sleep better at night knowing Lizzy also has dreams? To express that when loneliness sits down with me at my desk, I imagine Lizzy at her own as if we are looking at the same wall, fixed to the same spot that exists somewhere between here and there, in which the other person is always reflected back to us. Why would I try words, when what I really wanted was to put stars from the summer sky into a jar, for her to take back to the place where it is always winter?  

But that sky was far away now, in a state I won’t be back to for a while. So instead of trying to make meaning out of a separation that, in the end, severs nothing, I stood on the steps of my apartment and watched Lizzy move farther and farther away into the landscape of a waning January. Just when I thought her back had turned for the last time, thought I wouldn’t see how the cold air flushed her face until the following winter, she would turn around and send out another wave, her shining eyes holding mine, until I had to be the one who climbed the stairs slowly up toward my room. 

Categories
Voices

Reflections

by Jamie Weil | Voices | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, In The Space Between

Confronting identity and illness in the midst of a chaotic year.


I had just come out of the shower. I was damp, and tired. But I was calm enough that I was able to write a song for the first time in months. And it was good, I think. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter. At that point, I was happy to be doing anything but calling doctors or lying on my couch in pain or running through the same daily cycle of things I could do with my parents.

Having been alone in one place for four months, it was strange to be alone in a different place. It was relieving, actually, to feel like I’d accomplished some sort of movement, which I guess I had. Not only had I survived the five-hour drive from Connecticut to my aunt and uncle’s house in Maine, but also a six-week-long mystery illness, and the months-long process of getting prescribed estrogen. Being trans, and being sick, and being stuck in a house with only my parents for so long meant that any change that wasn’t altogether negative felt… wonderful. It’s a cliché, but, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, I genuinely felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while. 

There’s sort of a redefinition of self when you spend time in a new place, even if it’s only for a few days. We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

***

Last year, I wrote a piece about being—or, at the time, maybe not being—trans. It was for my creative nonfiction class, so I shouldn’t have been worried about anyone reading it and passing real, personal judgement, but I was. I revealed a lot of what I’d buried for most of my adolescence: cutting up old clothes so they would look like “girls’ clothes,” having several near-crises about my gender in my early years at Oberlin, realizing I was trans (in a planetarium in Montreal, of all places) and then recanting. But I also concealed the important part: that I’d never really felt like a person, like myself. I guess I’d thought that was too heavy to impart to anyone else. 

What’s funny is that very soon after writing that essay, I did drop a metaphysical brick on everyone in my life, and in a much more meaningful form than a college nonfiction piece: I came out. First, to my parents, then to my best friend, then to all the myriad people I loved and cared about. I don’t know why I decided to come out when I did, after returning home from the fall semester (although my rash decision to give myself bangs may have contributed). But I did. And things got so much better after that. 

I used Winter Term as a bit of a trial period for my transness; I changed my wardrobe a bit, and adapted to my new name. Gosh, did I feel so much more… alive. That feeling carried through the beginning of the spring semester: I was able to go and do things with my friends without being anxious about being perceived. For the first time, I could go to a party and not have a panic attack or melt into the walls. For the first time, it was good to be seen by other people, because I felt like they were validating my existence as the person I actually was even by saying “hi” to me. It was the happiest I’d been in a long while. 

We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

And then the pandemic hit, and all that newfound joy in human interaction was dashed. I was to be pretty much locked in a house with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not that I don’t love my parents, or that they aren’t supportive; it’s just that two people isn’t enough. Have you ever spent a bit too much time with a few close friends and needed to go have coffee with someone else, just to breathe different air? That was how I felt with my parents, except there wasn’t anyone to have coffee with, and breathing different air was… inadvisable.

I soon realized that this sudden change was going to end up forcing a lack thereof. As I’d learned how to be myself in Oberlin, I’d also been seriously considering starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’d always felt like my body was an ill-fitting sweater that I couldn’t take off, and HRT seemed like a solution. I was bent on broaching the topic with my parents during spring break, but spring break never happened. When I got home, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to see an endocrinologist for a long time. My entire transition hit an impasse. 

***

After a few days at home, it became clear that I (and everyone else) wouldn’t be returning to Oberlin for the rest of the spring. In addition to reckoning with my suddenly molasses-like transition, I was also going to engage in my studies at home. I had to make a bunch of hurried adaptations to my Connecticut life, because I could see that my routine of waking up at noon and eating two meals a day was going to get dark, and fast. I forced myself to leave my bedroom shades up; I learned how to make myself coffee; and I went on a lot of walks. To return to my earlier pseudo-psychological language, I had to redefine myself against what little positive stimuli I had within the confines of my neighborhood. 

One of these stimuli was an album by singer-harpist-bard-of-the-universe Joanna Newsom called Have One On Me. It’s an 18-song, two-hour-long album about codependent relationships (which I’ve, uh, had a few of). It was meaningful to me not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its overall emotional depth and complexity—it was something I could really dive into at a time when I felt life’s gravity had paused and left me hanging in midair. I listened to Have One On Me in chunks, and then as a whole, and then in chunks again, over and over and over. I also set off on the project of learning how to play all of the album’s songs, many of which had perplexing harmonies and rhythms. It was almost like a healing process for me, like the music was working me through all the quarantine-based ennui I’d developed. 

There are so, so many lines from Have One On Me that came to mean a lot to me, but one sticks in particular: “All my life, I’ve felt as though / I’m inside a beautiful memory / Replaying / With the sound turned down low.” The second I heard this line, I knew it typified a feeling I’d had for most of my life, one that was indescribable until then. I’d always been detached from myself, like I was in someone else’s delicate and muted memory. Hearing Joanna’s words when I did was particularly arresting, because that feeling had intensified in the time I’d been home. I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine. 

***

The school year wound down, and I began to settle into a bit of a groove. Without work, I was free to do what I wanted. I found solace in running, playing and writing music, and editing my poetry. With the pandemic calming somewhat, I was finally able to set the ball rolling on hormones. And I got a new therapist who was, at the very least, another person I could bounce my feelings off of. I was still isolated and disengaged, but I had established a comfortable rhythm. 

But in early June that all was disrupted (this is becoming a theme, yes?). I started to have difficulty digesting what I ate. At first I thought, Eh, I just ate bad fish or something, and then, Hm… Do I have salmonella? and then, I don’t know what I have but it is bad. By Independence Day, I was unable to keep anything nutritious in my body. I lost 10 pounds in a month (which is a lot for anyone to lose, but especially not good for normally 120-pound me). There were nights when I’d be greeted at 3:00 AM by intense nausea and dehydration. There were days when I had to lie in bed, not because of my growing exhaustion, but because any sudden movement I made would send me stumbling to the bathroom. And there were moments when I just broke down crying. It wasn’t the pain of being sick; it was the pain of not knowing what was happening to me, of feeling completely and totally out of control. I felt like my body was a blank gray wall, and no matter how loud I screamed, how many times I pleaded for answers, it just stood, disintegrating, silent. 

I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine.

Though I obviously needed a doctor, it took an extreme experience to get me to see one—because of the pandemic, and because I can be needlessly stoic. But after a rough morning when I ran a low fever, I got through to an on-call doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist an hour away. He took about five minutes to listen to my symptoms and suggested I have a colonoscopy, and quick. 

So I did. It was honestly not that bad; I counted back from 10 and woke up rather loopy an hour later. (And I got those hospital socks with the grip on the bottom, so that was a plus.) The doctor told me I had a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and prescribed steroids (temporarily) and an anti-inflammatory (permanently). Although it wasn’t a rosy outcome, I was glad to know I wasn’t wasting away for no reason. I was also glad to know I’d get better. At home, I’d already been mentally removed, and being sick took my physical security away as well. I was looking forward to being someone with a functioning mind and body again. 

***

So there I was in late July, four months into my forced experiment in social isolation. I’d just been prescribed a whole bunch of stomach medicine, as well as—finally—estrogen. And the day after I began taking all this in, after I began the process of healing in all the myriad ways I needed to heal, I left my Connecticut hideout for six days, to visit my aunt and uncle. When I got to Maine, I felt like I could breathe normally again. It was certainly a result of everything changing at once for me, but I didn’t realize that. It felt metaphysical. Like I’d stepped over from dusk to dawn. 

Through all I’d experienced that spring and summer, I’d been working on a long poem about my first experience realizing I was trans in a Montreal planetarium. Along with Have One On Me, it kept me going. It was one of the first poems I didn’t just pour out all at once; it was a stanza-by-stanza, section-by-section sort of deal. I would spend most of my afternoons, and sometimes the late hours of the night, writing and rewriting, destroying the paper with eraser marks. I did this even when I was at my sickest—I suppose it felt like the only way I could do something productive, despite the fact that few people were likely to see the poem, whenever I ended up finishing it. 

When I went to Maine, I was ever so close to finishing the poem, but the first four nights I was there, despite my newfound calm, I could not think of the right way to end it. I don’t know if it was classic writer’s block or if I just wasn’t spending my artistic energy in the right way, but I was stuck. 

Then, pretty late into the night before I was set to leave, I was walking out in the semi-cleared woods next to my aunt and uncle’s. Looking up at the sky, I could see the stars clearly. In the opening of the poem, I’d invoked Polaris and Ursa Major, and now they were right in front of me: “asterisms in the stars’ set order,” as Joanna Newsom would say. I had my ending. 

I sat in the grass, ignoring a thin layer of mist, and took out my phone and wrote. It was a bookend that also pointed forward, like an arrow sent through a board. I wrote feverishly, and though it ended up only being a few lines, I was satisfied. I got up and started heading back to the house. 

The poem closes with the line, “Dear god of the big mistake, / Here deserving of a small thanks.” Essentially, it’s a recognition of having come out of things ok, of having been lucky enough to come out at all. I wrote it with my transness in mind, but I think it came to represent all I’d been through that year: the hundreds of times I’d called doctor’s offices, the sickness, the stress, the isolation. But I’d gotten through that. And I was going to keep getting through it. 

As I was walking back, the fog from the lake beside me seemed to rise, but I could still see the stars looking down as I was looking up. With each step, I hit the ground, which was only getting wetter, with a squelch. And somehow, despite all known logic and physics, the wilderness picked up on that sound, reflecting myself back at me across the water. 

Categories
Voices

AIDEN

by Aniella Day | Voices | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

For you, as everything is now.


In August of 2018, I visited a dermatologist in order to remove a large wart on my right middle finger. She froze it, put some sort of acid on it, and told me some story about how warts can be brought on by stress in the body. She asked me, “What’s your stress?” I answered that I had been a dancer in high school and that was a pretty constant source of stress in my life. I had just quit ballet and was moving into college in a couple of weeks. She told me that my wart would disappear as soon as my stress did. 

So for a couple of months, I ignored the wart. I started school and had the most freedom I’d had in my entire life. I felt that I could do anything, say anything, be anyone I wanted to be. Then—around Halloween—I looked down at my hand again and the wart was still there. I began to notice a familiar sensation growing in my body. Dread, fear, anxiety, manifesting in sleeplessness, headaches, stomachaches, panic attacks. 

Aiden had been sick for about a month. Different doctors and nurses told him different things. First it was a cold, then the flu, then bronchitis, then a viral infection, then Bell’s palsy, then Lyme disease. Finally it was acute myeloid leukemia and I was sitting on a firm mattress in a hospital room being told about my brother’s chances of survival.

When my parents arrived the next morning around 3:00 AM, I could barely look them in the eye. I had been complicit in the ignorance surrounding Aiden’s condition for months. To me, it was my fault. In another way it was his. He lived so intensely and with such little selfishness that he refused help multiple times before he got the urgent message that he was immunocompromised and needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. He did not want to be my burden, so he forgave me my ignorance and stuck around a little while longer to teach me as much as he could before he left.

***

There were a few weeks after Aiden was discharged from his initial admittance to the hospital where we got to pretend to be a normal family again. We drove home in the ice and snow across upstate New York, Aiden in the front seat, reclined and relaxing, eagerly anticipating the arrival at our home in Deerfield and the excited greetings he’d get from our dog, whom he hadn’t seen for over three months. When we walked in the door, the scent of evergreen trees and old, stale Christmas decorations filled our noses. It was as if we were walking straight into our childhood. Family and friends had come to our home to get it ready for our arrival, filling it with food, gifts, my grandfather’s old fake tree, and decorations we’d never thought to put up in the past. What a wonderful feeling, to return somewhere after imagining you might never see that place again.

We celebrated Christmas early that year. Our family drove up from New Jersey and New York to fill our small home with loved ones and warmth. We moved the couch out of the living room and extended our four-person dining room table so that everyone would have a seat. We were full again. Full of sweets and eggnog and cider and gifts and hugs from loved ones. I don’t think I’ll ever take a holiday for granted again.

On Christmas Day, we drove to Boston for Aiden to begin his second round of chemo. I don’t remember much about the apartment we stayed in, except for watching all of Mr. Robot and imagining I was an older version of myself living in the city alone in an apartment, completely anonymous, without ties to cancer or death or grief.

***

In January I stayed home. Aiden was readmitted to the hospital with a fever. I have a picture of him sweating while his body is covered with ice packs. He was brought to Boston in an ambulance and stayed there for a couple weeks. Again, I don’t remember much else from that time other than a day when there was a rainbow refracting through the glass of my shower door and projecting colors onto my skin.

I got a telephone call that told me I was eligible to save my brother’s life. Naturally, I obliged and began to believe in the holiness of blood and science and their ability to save a life. I was asked so many medical questions, some so personal that not even I knew the answer to them. “Do you have any tattoos?” “Have you or any of your past sexual partners ever taken a drug intravenously that was not prescribed by a doctor?” “Have you or anyone you know (in the last six months) travelled to any of the countries listed on page 13, section A?”

I drove to Boston alone on a Monday and waited all day while doctors asked more questions and nurses poked at my veins. 

I watched Aiden over the phone as he took a bite of Frosted Flakes and tasted so much more than any of us taste when we eat Frosted Flakes.

I guess at some point I must have driven back to Oberlin, though I don’t remember that first week back all too much. I must’ve gone to classes and sent emails to professors telling them I’d be missing the second week of the semester to fly to Boston and have my stem cells harvested in order to cure my brother’s incurable disease. What do you say in response to that? They said this:

“That is an amazing thing you’re doing for your brother!”

“It’s wonderful that you are helping out your brother, and he is so very fortunate to have you.”

“Thank you for the email.”

***

I flew to Boston on February 7th, one week before the transplant was scheduled, to receive a week-long injection cycle of Neupogen (filgrastim)1 in order to boost my white blood cell count. For a cancer patient, Neupogen will make you feel better almost instantly, but for a healthy individual with no problems creating new white blood cells, Neupogen makes you feel like you’ve got the worst flu of your life. I felt a pain deep inside the matter of my bones. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before, most akin to the pain I felt in high school after a particularly difficult week of ballet rehearsals.

On Valentine’s Day, after a week of these flu-symptom-inducing shots, I lay in a bed in the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I panicked because I thought I was sick and giving my stem cells to Aiden would get him sick, so the nurses gave me Ativan and I fell asleep to my dad reading me The Cider House Rules

Aiden received my cells later that night, getting instantly red and hot upon injection (which was a normal reaction, according to the nurses). We played LEGO Star Wars on his Xbox, I read him my psychology textbook out loud, and I got used to the scent of my own hot breath recycling into my nose because of the medical mask I had to wear at all times around my own brother. I left him there two days later and he stayed in the hospital another three weeks while they waited for signs of graft-versus-host disease2 to appear. 

I was not allowed to drink alcohol for the month of February due to the donation. I was told I’d be more susceptible to illness and that I should refrain from strenuous physical activity for at least a week. I was also told I was brave for “saving my brother’s life” by more people than I can remember. The Kraft Family Blood Donor Center gave me a fleece blanket as a thank you.

***

More than a year went by. Aiden relapsed for the first time in July of 2019, received a second transplant from an anonymous German donor, relapsed for a second time in January 2020, was admitted to the hospital for experimental treatment, at which point he stayed in the hospital for about three months without visitors due to the pandemic. In late April I was told that most of the cells that had survived after his many rounds of chemo were mine. They asked if I’d be willing to donate cells again. 

There didn’t seem to be a question of if I was “willing” to do anything. I was praying to have something to do. I was desperately searching for some way to save my brother’s life. Being told again and again that my cells were special, magical, healing, I tried again. The day before my 20th birthday, I drove to a hospital in the middle of a pandemic where I was hooked up to a machine that filtered stem cells out of my blood and pumped blood back in. Because of the pandemic, the Neupogen shots were administered at home by my mother the week prior. 

My birthday this last year, May 12th, 2020, was a day of epic reunions. My father was allowed to visit Aiden in the hospital for the first time since March and someone very special to me whom I hadn’t seen since February came to stay at my house. I watched Aiden over the phone as he took a bite of Frosted Flakes and tasted so much more than any of us taste when we eat Fosted Flakes. I watched my dad give him a hug, imagining that it was all of us hugging him, all of us together again like it was supposed to be. 

Aiden came home at the end of May. His remission lasted about two weeks, then he relapsed again. They got rid of the cancer cells again and he was again in remission at the end of June. He spent July preparing for his online classes in the fall, reading books, playing Minecraft, and enjoying every minute that he was not stuck in a hospital room. He relapsed for a final time at the end of July and passed away at home on August 29th, 2020.

The end of this story is not one I am able to tell at this time. I am writing this on the first day of snow that Aiden will not see. There will be no conclusion to this story. There will be lists of first times, last times, songs he liked, movies he could recite by heart, things I said to him on his final night, times I cried. Today I went into Aiden’s room and I realised, it still smells like him. There will be no conclusion to this story. Every time I look in the mirror I will see Aiden’s eyes looking back and I will forever dream of saving him. 

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. 

1Neupogen is used to treat neutropenia, a lack of certain white blood cells caused by cancer, bone marrow transplant, receiving chemotherapy, or other conditions.

2The way I understand it, GVHD in this context is considered a good thing. It is a sign that the graft cells (my cells) are fighting the cancer cells, in addition to the host’s healthy cells. It is treatable and is associated with significantly fewer major symptoms than having cancer in the first place. 

Categories
Field Notes

Reworking

by Ally Chase | Field Notes | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

When everything changes, a hometown job becomes a source of comfort. 


The shop door swings open, and already, the moment is in flux. In front of me, through the familiar blast of air conditioning and pop music, every aspect of Flint Farm is coming and going. Some girls are noting the hour on their time cards, and talking idly about their dinner plans. Others laugh as they face each other, mirror each other, across the massive freezers of ice cream, packing a pint or scooping a cone. Some rush between their windows and the shallow wells that hold the scoops, and more still ask customers what they can get for them tonight. I stand silently in the doorway for a minute, watching as I gather my hair into a tight braid, and grin to myself as the bustle of the night spreads out before me. 

I take my place at a vacant window, leaning my body against the stained wood counter to stick my head out onto the porch. By now the evening has begun to cool, and the sun has reached that spot where it filters through the trees lining the parking lot, before it will settle far beyond the mulch and grass that lie on the other side of the road. People are crossing that road now, to get their ice cream, to get to where I stand waiting for them. The next person in line skips up to the counter to tell me what they want. I smile, I turn on my heels, and suddenly I have begun to jump the rope again. Finally, happily, I have dived into the water, and will stay beneath the surface until closing time.

Flint Farm is a town institution. Our humble four-window counter sells ice cream each year from April until Halloween, and the fifth and sixth generations of the Flint family operate the land themselves. In the summer we share the huge rickety barn with the farmstand that sells corn, vegetables, and, if you get there early enough, sunflowers that tower over the older women that buy them. 

Yet this place is not rural; in fact, Mansfield is so strictly suburban that if you continued down the road where Flint Farm sits, you would reach both a Target and a T.J. Maxx within minutes. Inevitably, the farm has become a meeting post for middle schoolers on bikes, an evening excursion for families on languid Sunday evenings, the perfect picnic table for a first date over ice cream cones. When I got behind the counter my sophomore year of high school, I felt I had joined a privileged sort of club, and it was in that spirit that I began my work there.

The details of the job, the tender parts of serving that no one notices, quickly became my reasons for loving it. There are so many things I never want to forget: the perfectly timed reflex of closing the cash register drawer with my hip, the bruises and dried ice cream up and down my forearms after I leave, the methodical crushing of empty tubs under my feet on the gravel by the greenhouse. I learned the regulars by name, and it felt natural to wonder about the people in line, the couples silent beside one another. 

Nobody told me that spending time behind the counter would mean those interactions would stay with me so much longer. After every shift I left buzzing, irrevocably changed. Now whenever I place my order somewhere, I turn away from the register thinking about how I can never really be just a customer again. 

And on those October afternoons when the job gets boring, you learn how to sidle up effortlessly next to someone as she scoops for the rainy day’s single customer. Everyone talks about the same things, some of them revolving around the work: what happened during last night’s shift and why our boss seemed displeased with one girl or another. But the conversation always turns comfortably to musings, and even more so to complaints. We all knew about the biology test someone would be taking the following day, or the boy that visited every afternoon during another’s shift. We also knew why one of our girls had been crying in her car, in the employee parking lot behind the field, before opening shop that morning. It is, and then it is not at all, surprising how many delicate things a person will reveal to someone they see a few hours a week. 

***

Last fall I went to college and forgot about Flint Farm, and I forgot all about being home. And then they shipped me back in March, during that mid-semester break. I worried and wept over this new wildfire illness, thinking I could stay jaded, thinking I couldn’t possibly pick up where I left off last August. Thinking there was no space for me in between wanting to be here and wanting to be away. It seemed uncomplicated for everyone else as they got their bearings between home and school, but for me such ease had always loomed so far removed, in a realm of cohesion it seemed impossible to exist in. 

Still, I felt cheated out of finding my own way; my private sense of unsettledness had come to an end, abruptly and prematurely. It was the punchline of a cruel joke, and I sat for hours, not laughing, trying to construct a semblance of meaning behind where I was.

But March passed, and time, as it tends to do, worked swiftly and sneakily against my resentment. The days got sunnier, and secretly I was overjoyed to be home in time to catch the fleeting blooms on the lilac tree beside my bedroom window. To see the black-eyed Susans spring up lazily in the front garden. To go for bike rides with my friends down to the train tracks, as we wondered aloud about what could possibly be next amidst so much uncertainty. With every passing week, every trip to the grocery store, and every night at the dinner table with my parents, college faded more and more into darkness, into otherness. Soon it was only a distant and abstract place, lonely to remember, because being alone at home and being alone hundreds of miles away are two very different things.

Then April came around again, and as we wondered how Flint Farm could possibly open in all of the chaos, it did. For the fourth summer I stood behind the counter and waited for the orders to come. So many things were different; gone were banana splits and cones, whose removals seemed arbitrary to both me and the customers. To scoop, we wore masks and gloves, and out of the 30-odd employees only 10 were allowed back on the schedule. Sometimes the girls on my shift were, apart from my parents, the only in-person contact I had all week. 

So many things were different, yet everything was the same. The old speaker in the corner still played those cheesy songs. We scooped and sampled for ourselves during lulls. We gossiped about people we knew and complained about customers, a whole new criteria available for our judgement: “How hard is it to put a mask on?” “Why did he get so close to the counter?” “Can’t they see that isn’t the entrance?”

At some point the thought occurred to me that it felt like a normal summer. The more I realized how true this was, the uneasier I became. It kept me awake, how promptly life had picked back up in Mansfield, when time had stopped everywhere else in the world. I had come back to Flint Farm eager to work, maybe a little too thrilled to put on my ratty sweatshirts and pink rubber clogs like I had every other 15th of April. 

I took for granted, in the simplest of ways, that I would assume my usual role, even in all of this. Even as the flames licked at our sides. But why? How could I be unfazed by the droves of people still coming out on a summer night for their sundaes and milkshakes? And yet, it all seemed so perfectly logical. Wasn’t an ice cream shop the cornerstone of a small-town summer? Shouldn’t it always be this way? Should it?

And at one time, hadn’t I been delighted to hear the girls criticize their parents, and divulge the details of the parties they had been to the night before? After all, it seemed a rite of passage to be hungover during a Sunday opening shift, and even more so to tell about it. But it was under a fresh cloud of vague and unnameable dread that I listened to their woes and tales, and shared some of my own. 

What I did not share was the dull, gnawing fear of how natural it felt for us all to ignore the world in pieces around us. Somehow, at Flint Farm, our lives had managed to stay intact. Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break and the sanctity of our wholesome ignorance came into question. Had it always been this way? Had I just not seen it? 

And maybe I was the problem. Maybe I had misjudged both everything I knew, and a place, whether it be Mansfield or Flint Farm, whose every corner I had explored a hundred times. Maybe, as it has been with so many things before, my expectations would never line up with the reality I should have always known, the one that always lands neatly in a spiral at my feet.

***

Late one night in the summer, I was leaning idly against the counter, looking through the windshield of a car as a woman spooned a taste of her ice cream into her husband’s mouth. He smiled as she pulled the spoon from his lips, nodding to say, “Oh, that’s good.” Between them, a face mask dangled from the rearview mirror. A second thought occurred to me then, not quite an answer to my questions, but close enough. 

Under the eyes that smiled at me, or rather at the ice cream I handed them, there was a quiet but insistent need for preservation, and it was out of this need that the normalcy in our town continued with such resilience. 

The moment at the beginning of this piece, where I am looking upon all of the magic being generated in our little shop, could have been any night during any summer, this one included. Still, I now have trouble reconciling how misplaced it felt to extract the same amount of joy from an experience that was so different, but maybe should have been even more so. 

Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break.

But like the customers I served and the people I worked with, it was out of necessity that I chose to let whatever I was feeling about Flint Farm evaporate into the sticky summer air. I stopped thinking about whether this was the right or wrong thing to do. In fact, I stopped thinking about Flint Farm altogether, and accepted it as where I needed to be. This time, the choice between here and there was mine again. I teared up whenever I let my thoughts drift to the lake with my grandparents, to that lush time of year where I should have been fishing with my grandfather or reading silently next to my grandmother, and could now do neither. 

But instead, I could pour root beer over vanilla ice cream and let the foam overflow with its sweet, rich scent. And most days I would sit alone on my porch in the morning sunshine, looking up at all of that bright blue, wishing on a cloud that I could flip pancakes for breakfast with my best friend. But I could scoop pints and make change for a 20-dollar bill and blend the strawberry frappe, extra thick, for the man I knew I would do the same for the next day. There was so much I could not do, but I could be present in that moment where the music picks up and I am rapping in the rhythm of the work. I could settle for this, because I did not want to comprehend the alternative.

All of this being said, it turns out there is no real reason I can point to, besides that time passes, for why I grew up and the job stayed the same. I remember one winter years ago, driving back from a friend’s house on East Street, I stopped at the light and looked out the window to see the sun setting over Flint Farm. 

Behind the silos it was turning the fields orange and the houses black, everything bare and raw from the frigid off-season. I stared and stared at that place I knew so well, and I felt I finally understood how something could be so beautiful it broke your heart. But after every shift this summer, lingering in the parking lot, all of my senses attuned to how Flint Farm would be exactly the same when I came back as it was when I left, I would squint once more into that line between field and sky, and think about going home. 

Categories
Temporal Reflections

The Only Symptom

by Corrie Purcell | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2020

Image by Nell Beck

Notes on friendship and malaise during a unique spring and summer in Oberlin.


As the weeks go on, it becomes clearer that we won’t be going to the beach. This means campus shuts down and empties out in a matter of hours. This means the snow keeps falling. This means the flowers keep blooming and then curling back into themselves when the flakes cover the petals. We close the tabs on our computers where swimsuits have waited a month for us to purchase them. On the warmest days, we drag chairs into the yard and peer over tiny sunglasses at novels. It’s too easy to share a beer at 2:00 PM. It’s too easy to forget the sunscreen. With our eyes closed, the cars that pass by sound like waves.

We all become masters of the way several hours can pass like a shadow. We wave to the couple across the street who smoke and play cards from two to six every afternoon. We set up movies on the projector before lunch. I wake up most mornings feeling newly acquainted with the word ‘malaise.’ I call my mother and gain no comfort; she’s not feeling any sort of malaise. She is weirdly cheerful, resilient, hardworking. She likes her home office, feels as though she may even be more productive there. She’s finding time away from the workplace to be restorative. When I call her on my walks, she barely has time for me. She is taking two classes online and working on top of it. I have never felt more disconnected from her.

I struggle to get myself out of bed; I haven’t done homework in a week. I stopped taking notes the week after classes started back up. All I bring myself to do is find new paths in the Arb. All I can bring myself to do is pick up the guitar. And then, not even that.

***

Our friends who lived in a college-owned house across the street from us left in a hurry, not locking the doors behind them. Yesterday, we went in, just to do something new. The first floor smelled like rot. When we got to the kitchen, we found fruit on the counters with brown spots and fruit flies, expired dairy products in the fridge, takeout containers on the table. I wandered into the first-floor bedroom while everyone else went upstairs. A couple of years ago, I was seeing a girl who lived in this same house and I spent the night in that room. I marveled at the lines the sun cast on the bare mattress. 

One time, she and I went to the bar downtown and then walked back to her house, where I took my contacts out in the dark and fell asleep, earlier than either of us would have liked. Her room’s windows looked out onto the porch and each one was wide open when I awoke. I turned over and the bed was empty, but there were voices drifting in from outside. It was seven or so people, all of her closest friends, sitting there. I suddenly felt like an intruder, like I was taking away from her time with her friends; I had accidentally stumbled into something intimate and private. I dressed, then slipped out the back door. I texted her saying, “Hey, just slipped out,” and she responded, “Come eat ice cream on the porch,” which I pretended not to see until the morning.

Last night at dinner, I forgot about the rising body count. Lee and Sophie spent four days preparing for Passover: marinating, mincing, putting together. I came downstairs on Tuesday and Sophie was in the kitchen, crying while making homemade chrain. Laughing, I took her face in between my hands, wiping away her tears. 

Today, we opened up all the doors and windows, we wore freshly ironed clothes, we all put on shoes. We set the tables with bunches of flowers, moved chairs around, put wine glasses at every spot. When we held hands and prayed, there was nothing else. Sophie went to the post office and paid 10 dollars to print the Haggadah. It sat in a huge and heavy stack on the table. We kept passing it around, taking turns reading. We kept wondering if we would do this again, in a year. We kept thinking about where we were last year. Time stops and then picks up again, I guess. Maya and Grace got drunk off of four glasses of red wine. Everyone else joined them by glass six. Today, I’ve felt so gentle and smooth, I’m going to cut off all my hair and move without the weight of it. 

I wander downstairs sometime before noon. I watch one movie, and then another. I read A Little Life from cover to cover in a day. I stare up at the ceiling and forget why I came to the kitchen. 

I never knew I liked plans so much until I couldn’t make them. I’m obsessed with the spring break trip we didn’t take and I try to connect our daily life to things we could have done there. Grace comes in from a run, wet from sweat and snow, and I tell her she looks like she just stepped out of the ocean. Jae and I make plans for dinner and I suggest fish each time. When we bike past standing water that smells like trash, I always say it smells like the beach. I wonder if I’m doing this right. I wonder if I should be filling my days in other ways. I walk for two hours and then realize it will take two more to get home. Sometimes the clouds get so low that I stop making plans. 

I just got into a fight with Maya about a squirrel she saw killed by a car while on a run. She saw the car coming towards the squirrel, and then she saw the car leaving the squirrel, and when she went over, the squirrel was dead. She poked it with a stick to confirm. She finished the run and came home and wanted to go back to where the squirrel died, and because I hadn’t seen her all day I joined her. I biked back with her. She wanted to take a picture of the squirrel to put online. I thought that was a mockery of death. She told me if I wanted to leave it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I left, convinced I was right. Now, I’m sitting alone upstairs. I know she’s back. I think she should apologize to me, to the squirrel. I know she’s feeling genuine grief. There’s so much curiosity about death. There’s so much grief we’re all holding. There’re all these headlines and all these burdens. I keep waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming that I’m sitting in front of my parents’ caskets. I forgot to mention that she kept poking the squirrel with a stick, reanimating its little limbs.

Of all the bedrooms I’ve ever lived in, I like this one the best. It’s got south- and west-facing windows, hardwood floors, light green-painted walls. I have my clothes very neatly organized in a closet that doesn’t have a door. I hung just a few pictures around the room, and the light is always perfect. There’s a queen-sized bed and a balcony. It’s very hard to leave, but when I do there’s always pizza in the oven downstairs or someone’s just finished a pie. Or Grace is studying for a test on the couch, and Maya and Jae are working on a puzzle. 

They keep surprising me, the people I thought I knew best. Mila takes walks and is gone for hours, comes back quiet and full of secrets. Maya scrubs the floor with such beautiful vigor. The dirt comes back within a few hours and then she’s at it again. Sophie watches RuPaul and is working on her fifth knit hat. Last week she made a full set of pottery bowls and mugs. Jae rises before us and is the most ready for adventure at the drop of a hat. Last week Jae cut my hair even though they had an essay due in an hour. Lee has to get into a body of water on a warm sunny day, no matter how cold the water may be, no matter how murky it may look. Grace dances in the Arb, in the front yard, by herself, with new people, with an old friend; she gets filled up on dancing and sometimes it’s enough for the day. 

***

And then there’re all the discoveries. For example, that the bike path doesn’t end in the middle of a field. Instead, if you turn left and enter Wakeman, you can bike alongside a highway for three more miles and then suddenly you’re at a square lake with geese. Or how two miles past Black River Metro Park, there’s a swampy bed for the trees and a white carpet of tiny wildflowers. There’s a trail that wanders through and the light is yellow-green. Everything is very quiet.

I keep thinking about split universes, and it seems all too plausible to me; I spend hours researching the whole Berenstain Bears thing, the Mandela effect. We sit on the couch in the seven-person home and suddenly notice that there are punched holes in Jae’s painting on the wall. We all pause, sure that these were new additions. When Jae comes in and we ask them, they laugh, Yeah, the holes have always been there.” But there’s something about the camaraderie of enough people remembering the past differently. There are so many of us who remember “Berenstein.” There are people who remember Nelson Mandela dying in the ’80s. We all remember the painting without the holes. There’re all those mathematical proofs. That’s what I’m saying about split universes. I can’t look at the spelling Berenstain.

Yesterday I cut off my hair to try to shear off all this dread. I’m practicing walking around the world without the weight of it. I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right. I trip my tongue over the words ‘boy’ and ‘dyke.’ I flip between thinking my hair is too long or too short. My best friend cut bangs into my hair in mid-March, right after we got the news, and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to decide if bangs made me look too femme. Then Jae cut into my hair more a week ago. I had them leave it long in the front, like I still have bangs, but it’s shorter on the sides and in the back. I look like a 10-year-old boy who needs a haircut. My curls fall into my eyes, so I have to push them back constantly. When I wake up, no hair falls on my forehead; instead, I walk to a mirror and I look like Cosmo Kramer, with 2.5 inches of hair standing straight up. 

I like it all the same; my showers barely happen. My body easily hides in baggy clothes. And I like getting all the way out to the middle of nowhere and not worrying about cars slowing down beside me. Last summer, my ponytail was so long and so high and so curly, it looked like an invitation. Every run, every bike ride, I practiced staring straight ahead. One time, a man in a Hyundai tried to run me off the road, came straight at me with a car until I jumped into a ditch. He yelled out, “Fuck you, bitch,” and kept driving. I put up my middle finger before I realized he had already turned the corner.

***

Still, I’m not convinced by the haircut. I like the way I look, but I’m not sure if I look like me. At least, I look nothing like what my high school self dreamed I would look like at 21. 

In high school, I wore skinny jeans and barely ate. I had this haircut that came just barely past my chin. I was really smart, and really motivated. I tried to fuck one of my closest male friends. At age 21 I wanted to look: sexy, confident, thin, with beautiful curls. I wanted: a fat ass, long hair that looked like an invitation in the sunlight, a perfect score on the LSAT. I wanted to be: desired, makeup free, relaxed, funny. In reality, I am: most of those things, but a lesbian. I use the term lesbian lightly.

I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right.

When I came down the stairs this morning, Maya ruffled my hair and I leaned into it. I think that there is a chance that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. On days when the sun is out like this and I move inside whenever it goes behind a cloud, when we move around an empty campus in a pack, when we strip naked on North Fields as the sun is going down. I mean, to live with my best friends in a world where they are the only things, I mean, to be able to make dinner and rules together every night, I mean, to climb into a bed with sun-dried sheets. I like moving from room to room, I like walking to kill hour after hour. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s like a vacation. 

Still, I keep looking up the definition for malaise. As in “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” as in “unhappiness,” “uneasiness,” “restlessness,” “melancholy.” I look up what causes malaise. I look up how to cure malaise. I look up what causes malaise again. I can’t decide who decides what makes it malaise and not boredom, unhappiness, homesickness. This is my only symptom.

But here’s what I’m trying to say. When I was 10, we lived in Japan. My mother had this plan for us to see the five main islands. In Hokkaido, we went to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was completely deserted. There were lush mountains on either side. We had to hitchhike to get there. We had to hitchhike home. Once we were there, we barely spoke. It was like being in a trance. The water was clear. The waves were calm. We are from Arkansas; my brothers and I had only seen the ocean a couple of times before this. No one put on sunscreen. 

We all swam out too far. It was only once the shore was several strokes out that we realized: the jellyfish. Jacob screamed when he felt the tentacles wrap around his ankle. Carlin and I weren’t as far out as him, and swam closer to help, not realizing what was happening. My mother was floating serenely on her back. When the stinging began, I was surrounded only by the people I love most in the world, many long strokes from shore. Fear alongside comfort.