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Voices

Racing Like Turtles

by Zane Markosian | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

In the morning the air smelled hot and a little bit smokey. I rolled over next to Kirby, in the large and plump bed of the “second house.” We were in the smaller house that had been built years earlier—next to the real cabin—in order to provide more sleeping space at the lake.

The real cabin was like walking into a relic of the 1950s and like a hastily put-together set for a vacation dream. It was built of logs and the walls labored under the weight of the kitschy decoration, sagging all around the main room. There were snowshoes and replica skis and fishing poles and old coca-cola ads. There were also amusingly raunchy posters for movies from the ’80s and more than one stylized “gone fishing” sign.

I stepped out onto the porch, eager to get into the real cabin because I didn’t want to miss any summer revelry. The screen door slammed behind me as I walked into the other house and looked for signs of life. I didn’t really expect anyone to be awake though.

The day before, we had all driven across the state in order to get to Simone’s cabin, and we had spent far too many hours on the tiny gravel roads of eastern Washington. We were staying at Simone’s cabin in the Okanogan and we were celebrating the end of highschool. This was our big grownup vacation and we were lucky enough to be living in temporary opulence. She had driven over a day before us all in order to unboard the windows and to get the cabin ready for the summer.

Hayden, Kerry, and Dory all drove up in a red pickup truck with a canoe in the back, and myself Kirby, Emily, and Patrick followed. Emily had been trying to play the most summery pop music that she could find, and as we bounced over dusty hill, Patrick and I boldly made up words to the sections that we didn’t know.

It turns out that it’s very difficult to find a one specific valley in the middle of the Okanagan region. At the top of one pass, we had come to a t-intersection and Emily directed Kirby to the left but he hesitated. The road was cordoned off and a Forest Service ranger explained that because of a forest fire, we would have to make a detour. One other fire-induced detour like this one and a handful of more self-imposed navigation errors meant that it was late in the day by the time that we finally arrived.

I remember almost falling out of the car when we pulled up the cabin—I was so desperate to stretch out and I was eager to take in the surroundings. We were at the end of a narrow valley and steep hills rose on either side. Behind the houses there were woods, but it was dusk and it was difficult to see much beyond the immediate and pine scented clearing. The other car—with Hayden, Dory, and Kerry—had arrived hours before us because somehow they hadn’t been as messed up by the detours, and everyone rushed down to greet us and to welcome us to summer.

Standing there in the garishly decorated kitchen, I was so eager to get my friends up-and-going. I felt this restless urgency as I squinted through the window, but there really was no prescribed plan. I opened up a package of bacon while I peered through the decades-old panes of glass above the kitchen sink, and I watched some birds swooping across the lake.

It was really more of a pond than a lake. A dam had been added in the ’50s in order to create a reservoir for fishing. Back then, this whole place had been a fishing retreat. It was rented to wealthy businessmen coming from Seattle or Spokane. But that business had dried up (though the reservoir remained), and Simone’s dad had bought the land in the ’90s and built another cabin as well as a little garden plot.

We ate a breakfast that was almost entirely bacon and fruit, and we headed down to join the birds at the lake.

***

Down by the water, the noise was incredible. There was a constant hum of activity: cicadas in the reeds, mosquitoes hovering around our ears, dragonflies snapping their wings. In some effort to banish all this chaos, Simone brought down a speaker. She put on The Shins and we listened in the sun.

You led no celibate life
No skirt while chemicals danced

in your head
You stole the keys to this ride
And your fables are falling tonight

It was almost noon at this point and I was recovering from what had turned into a race against Patrick. We had set off leisurely at first from the edge of the dock.

We pushed into the cool black water and towards the far edge of the pond. I looked at him between strokes—alternating my head left and right with each motion of the arms. His shoulders bulged and even in that dusty afternoon it had been clear that he was a strong swimmer. I felt my heart pounding. We sometimes found ourselves competing viciously with each other and I never understood why. The calls from the dock came to us in between our strokes.

“Whoever gets to other side first can have my second Mike’s…”

“You can’t let him beat you like that…”

Patrick pulled forward a bit and I kicked harder. In an instant I was so mad. As I pulled the water past me I couldn’t help but catalog all the times that he had made people laugh more than I had. And I thought about the undefined—and yet dire—feelings of competition that whirled between the two of us when others were around.

Oftentimes, I brushed these feelings away with thoughts that it didn’t matter, that it was immature to even care what people thought about the two of us, that maybe no one else but me and Patrick sensed this silent perpetual war. But in the water, I could think of nothing else.

With a frenzied splash we both smacked the cliff of the other side. It had been an almost exact tie and the anger was all gone. We bobbed laughing, gasping for breath, and treading water. In a good-natured manner, we fought to shove each other into the rock and I laughed as I felt the cool stone scrape my shoulder and saw small streaks of blood on his. I felt big and I knew that he did too. We swam back together, laughing. Later we would split the promised Mike’s hard lemonade and then have two more together.

***

Emily lay down next to me on the edge of my towel. She curled her wet back over towards me and our arms pushed against each other. I twisted my own body a little bit to my right, away from her. My shoulder left the damp towel and rested on the wooden dock which felt like a thousand degrees. The white, rough wood had been catching the sun all day and it was hard to even walk across barefooted at this point. Still though, it felt okay against the back of my shoulder which was damp from the swim. In middle school I had had a little crush on Emily but now that we were older, and had grown into markedly different people, it felt natural to just be friends.

Simone sat next to us on the dock but because I lay on my back, it almost felt like Simone was sitting above me, hanging over my head. She flipped a page of her book. Without raising my head to look to the water, I kept track of Kirby and Dory as they paddled in a canoe around the little lake. They were circumnavigating it all and they were paddling lazily. In my hand I grasped the now-lukewarm last drops of a Mike’s and the sweetly smell of that drink mixed with the intoxicating smell of Emily’s hair.

Suddenly Simone shrieked and tumbled onto myself and Emily. She had—in an instant—drawn her feet out of the water (they had been dangling) and she laughed as she recovered her balance.

“It was a turtle! A huge turtle just swam up and rubbed against my toe—are there more?” We pulled ourselves up and bent over the dock. “Oh wow there’s another one… and a couple more!” Emily exclaimed while pointing out towards the center of the water. “They’re fast!”

“What happened?” Kirby called to us as the canoe slipped easily up against the dock. We hadn’t even noticed him and Dory paddle over, attracted by the wild shriek.

Mischievously, Dory reached down for a small net which lay in the bottom of the canoe and she asked “want to try to catch one?” Of course we did.

Kirby excitedly declared “Someone can come into the canoe with us and we can paddle while you use the net, and someone else can sit on the surfboard and help us corral one of these turtles.”

I pushed the surfboard off of the sand and I sat towards the back, with the front angling up and out of the water. I watched Simone precariously lower herself off the dock and into the waiting canoe. We were set.

Leaning over to put my chest against the board and my face close to the water, I was able to move forward by drawing my arms through the water. We were so effortlessly quiet—on the surfboard and in the canoe—as we smoothed over the water. The cicadas had persisted and now that The Shins were no longer playing, the late afternoon had become loud and chaotic. But it was much quieter in the center of the pond.

“There’s one!” I called to the others.

They circled gracefully over to my side. “Oh I see it!” But as they drew closer, the turtle startled and dived deeper. We followed in the direction in which the turtle had seemed to shoot himself and the four of us saw him surface a couple yards ahead of us.

Breathing softly so as to not disturb anything I said “I’ll circle around him and try to direct the turtle to you all.”

Dory back paddled in order to slow the advancing canoe, and I turned my board and pushed towards the center of the pond. I rounded back towards the reeds, keeping the turtle on my right side.

“Okay I see him.” Simone crouched in the center of the canoe and reached the net above her head. “What’s our plan?” She asked.

“Let’s get a bit closer,” Kirby answered, “and then go for it.”

“Zane, if it comes to you, you might have to use your hands.”

I really didn’t know if I would be able to touch a real live turtle with my hands. Everything around us stood still for an instant and then Simone plunged the net down. There was a loud splash—followed by a quick scream: “He’s coming to you, Zane!”

I swept my arm through the water, trailing a frothy disturbance behind my spread hand. I had completely missed and my hand swung up empty. The turtle had slid under my board and out to the other side.

The surface of the water became a chaotic frenzy as we all madly tried for the escaping turtle.But we finally got him. From the dock, Patrick, Hayden, and Emily whooped and cheered for us. Dory held her paddle above her head in triumph and Simone dropped the turtle into the base of the canoe. She was afraid of its snapping beak and so as soon as the turtle was extricated from the net, she let him fall.

This went on for hours. In all we probably caught about five poor turtles. At some point Kirby paddled back to the dock in order to grab Hayden’s nalgene and he used the water bottle to scoop some pond water over the turtles in the bottom of the canoe.

Dory was done and while Kirby grabbed the Nalgene, she climbed precariously out of the boat and onto the dock. This led to a grand reshuffling: I stepped first onto the dock and then into the canoe, and Patrick—who until then had been sharing a Mike’s with Emily—pushed himself onto the surfboard. I noticed that she touched his arm as he got up from the dock.

The two-craft flotilla set out for one last conquest. It was a waiting game and while we waited for the turtle to rise back towards the surface, we drifted towards the point that we had seen the turtle last. Then we tried to position our two crafts around the swimmer and we came to the critical moment.

Patrick paddled well on the surfboard and as I swept the net through the water (Simone and I were taking turns), Patrick back-paddled deftly. He could see that the turtle would startle and would shoot between the two of us. And he was right, the turtle darted away from the canoe and towards the center of the pond, and patrick was able to be exactly in the right place. He had timed it expertly.

From the splashing chaos, he drew his hand up. And in his hand, he held the turtle. He was triumphant—and he was the only one of us who had caught a turtle with his own fleshy hands. I had caught at least two with the net, but the net absolutely provided some kind of a distancing.

Patrick tossed the little guy into the canoe and simone scooped some more water to pour over the crawling mess of turtles. We had them all and we began paddling back. Not to the dock but, this time, to the beach. We pushed up the canoe and Patrick stepped up off the surfboard, into the shallow water.

***

I looked back to the beach and I saw Patrick greet Emily with a little smile plastered across his face. Just hours earlier we had been straining through the water side-by- side and I had been intent on beating him. Somehow it was always like this.

When we had been younger, a year- or-so before the cabin in the Okanagan, we had gone up to Lost Lake to spend the night. It was the most haphazard of plans—within a couple of hours, we all had decided we were going, packed some backpacks and set off. And the trip really had been driven by some summertime sense of audacity.

Our tents were on a tiny island in the middle of the lake, and there were narrow little planks going back to the shore, offering a muddy walkway. We wanted to do something big before dinner and so we slid across the planks back to the shore, and set off to circumnavigate the lake.

Almost halfway around we ran into a towering boulder sitting on the side of the water. Moss made a sheen all the way over the water side of the rock and I thought it was crazy to even consider us sliding past on that side. Instead I proposed that we head to the right—away from the water just a little bit—in order to get back around to the left and to get back to our dinner. Patrick balked and I remember myself immediately going on the defensive: “well what do you think we should do? Do you want to slip down the rock? Try to come up with a better plan.”

He smirked. “All I know is that I don’t think we need go all the way around.”

We finally did go my way but it ended up being a much longer detour than it seemed. By the time that we made it back to the campsite it was dark, we were hungry, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how smug Patrick must have been. Remembering back to that day, I’m not even sure that he had been gloating—but I remember thinking of the feud as inescapable.

It was this same strange resentment that floated over my head as I watched him hold a turtle out for our friends to inspect. I also felt a little bit bad for the turtle; his little legs spun, unproductively in the air and there was nothing else he could do.

***

Looking back into a boat full of desperate scrambling amphibians, Simone had an idea. “What if we draw a line in the sand, release the turtles up there by the grass, and place bets as they run back into the water? I can take these ones.” Simone pointed to the three turtles in the front of the boat. “And you guys can have these ones.”

We all loved the idea. I had bent over to reach into the boat and, with a canoe paddle, started to shunt the remaining turtles away from the ones that Simone had claimed. Patrick had joined me by my right side.

“Let’s call this one Escobar,” he pointed to the biggest of our team.

“And let’s call this one Julio,” I answered.

Emily brought down some generously sized tupperwares from the kitchen and we had been using these to transport the turtles. I felt Escobar repeatedly throw himself against the side, in an effort to get out.

The day had become colder very quickly. As soon as the sun dipped behind the wall of the valley, it was as if a curtain had been drawn on the show. After spending hours laying on the scorching pale wood of the dock, I was actually chilly and so I was eager to get these turtles released and back into the water.

Opposite Simone, I scooped the first leathery turtle out of the “boys” team’s tupperware. Julio squirmed unexpectedly in my hand and I almost dropped him. I reached down and held him inches above the wet sand, watching his feet swirl through the air. He must have been so desperate to get back into the water. It didn’t seem totally fair that we were forcing these turtles to race—especially when just an hour earlier they had been happily swimming.

We released the turtles in pairs. There were three races in total and each race was accompanied by screams and cheers from the two teams. The turtles scrambled headfirst towards the safety of the water—an instinct which must have been programmed deep in them.

***

Later that night, we sat around the table and laughed while picking over our remnants of dinner. The pasta was still in a bowl on the table in front of us and I set down my fork, in favor of—instead—just using my fingers to pick out some cherry tomatoes.

I think we were prouder of ourselves back then than we really deserved. Earlier Simone had worried about how salty the pesto should be because her mom usually made it one way. We were all still trying to be like the grownups. She licked her spoon and mused, “you know—I think we nailed it.” Patrick reached across to give her a high-five and we all laughed.

We sat for awhile, content to just laugh and talk over the food on the table, but after while Kirby got up and he came back with a deck of cards. He dropped them on the table and suggested that we play hearts.

“Hearts, really?” Dory asked.

“Yeah—come, on let’s okay,” Patrick responded. Somehow it had become his idea, to play, and he grabbed the cards from Kirby to begin shuffling.

Hayden got up to clear the table and I slinked after him into the kitchen. “What is it with Patrick?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” Hayden asked.

“Well I just feel like there’s always something to prove.”

“Are you guys still talking about the race?” Dory asked as she walked into the kitchen with a stack of bowls from the table.

I shot Hayden a grimace before heading back out to pick up more dishes.

When we were all back around the table, cards in hand, I looked down and realized that I could maybe shoot the moon. I worried about being too bold but there in front of me were the cards: a run of high hearts, some high diamonds, and the King of Spades. With a subtle little

shrug of my head, I played my first card. Someone slipped in a low heart and I played everything off as if—“oh shucks I guess I can roll with that.” But really I was thrilled.

Patrick reacted to me stomaching a heart and what he said was: “Oh yikes that’s okay, Zane.” But what I heard was “you must be so embarrassed.”

Hearts is one of those games where points are bad—but what’s special is that if you somehow have the gall to take every single point, then you actually win. This is what I was trying to do: take every single heart, as well as the queen of spades.

I tried to hide what I was doing. I asked Emily about her plans to run cross country in college in order to distract from my taking the eight of hearts. I asked Dory how she felt about moving to California while I took the four, two, and seven. I asked about the future because that was the biggest distraction that we all shared and I hoped to deflect from my plan until it was too late to be stopped.

But with every point I took, I felt little jabs from Patrick. Even though I wanted to keep my head down and to just play my cards, I couldn’t help but to engage in the back-and-forth a little bit. Trick after trick, the two of us teased each other and tried to appear bigger than we actually were.

Simone put back on the Shins album that we had listened to earlier. As we went around the table, putting down cards and picking at food, Patrick and I kept making small comments. I was eager to laugh a little too loud when he spilled a Mike’s and he was quick to teasingly ask me about how I had cried while cutting the onions for dinner. Our back-and-forth continued throughout the night. We were listening to the same song that we had been while down at the water. But this time a different part stood out to me.

The dust from a four day affair is
now landing
All over the floor and your brown
legs
The gold-plated legs of my rival
Whose eyes had no reason to fall

I still had those lines running through my head as a I fell asleep later that night, next to Kirby. I knew that in the morning we would wake up and do it all over again and the air would still be hot and smoky. We would still be wrapped up tight in the beginning of summer, and Patrick and I would still be racing, just like turtles.

Categories
Voices

The Movement of the Myth

by Gabi Shiner | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Haley Johnson

Editor’s Note: This piece contains mentions of mental illness, suicide, and sexual violence.


Getting wheeled up to the psych ward is like that beginning sequence in a concert documentary where you follow the star through the bowels of the arena to the stage, but sad. A nurse moved me from one drab, tiled hallway to the next as we made our way up to 3 East. With each leg, I let a little more go. Bye resistance. Bye dignity. Bye working so fucking hard to keep myself from going back to the hospital. Going into treatment felt like coming out of some sort of prolonged lobotomy. The blankness I felt by the time we came to the double doors left me smiling.

During my first ten-day-long institutionalization, I probably smiled a total of 15 times. The first thing I did at the hospital was to sob in front of twenty other fuckups and their therapists. As I hyperventilated my way through my introduction, I looked around the circle at their colorful, plastic chairs, then out the window at the world I’d so abruptly been barred from. My goal from day one was to get out. Staying would mean admitting that I had failed to take control of my narrative.

I don’t remember when it started, but at some point I started narrating my own life to myself in my head like an autobiography. Whether or not I counted an experience of mine as pathetic depended largely on whether or not I could fashion it into dryly humorous prose. I could almost hear the amorphous sound of my voice reading this non-existent prose several years later at a hip bookstore meet and greet, like someone yelling garbled words in a dream. It was my own neverending, sinister free credit on Audible.

The part about OCD was already written for me when I got to it. I was five. I paused the Dora the Explorer three times to go wash my hands, and I knew I was doomed. Walking back into the living room the third time was like walking into uncanny valley. The swirly designs on the rug started to look computerized. My parents looked at me like I was a criminal. There is no way to tell when the inception of “things changing” was, but I know that after that day I was at the mercy of my bizarre, repetitive thoughts and the host of remedies that my parents employed to erase them. Every time I refrained from snipping invisible ribbons in the air, I got a gold star sticker on my OCD chart. Every time I couldn’t control horrible visions of stabbing my family in the middle of the night, I got a stern talking to. My OCD story ended in the same quietly destructive way it had started. My parents told me I couldn’t see my therapist anymore because she wanted to give me drugs, and I was crushed. She had wanted to hear about how painful it was to imagine these violent things against my will, and now nobody did. I would adapt. If I had a problem, it would be anything but perverted, ugly OCD.

Everything was fine until 11th grade when I was sitting in Our Town rehearsal, hazy from Abilify, delivering Mrs. Gibbs’s lines about going to Paris like a bad casting temp reading at an audition. Listening to myself catatonically speak was a sure sign that my social identity, good grades, friends, whatever had melted in a depression garbage fire. One of the worst things about this depression was that it severely impacted my performance and thus my narrative of self. At that time, performance and narrative of self were interchangeable for me. In high school, I relied upon the narrative control I had in plays. Theater was the respite I needed from my inability to sit with myself without picking at her. Onstage, I could connect to everything ugly, but I could aestheticize it through performance. I could release it in a way that was choreographed and cathartic. When I got depressed, I was so swarmed by gloom that I didn’t have the ability to convert the ugliness. I was just drowning in it, lethargically miming corn shucking and oatmeal cooking as Thornton Wilder’s American masterpiece required me to do.

The depression garbage fire was actually just obscuring a taller, more toxic OCD garbage fire a few miles away. At that time, my intrusive thoughts concerned my being an unfuckable, awkward, inadequate nothing baby. In the fall of junior year, my best friend started dating the boy I was in love with, which was what we in improv like to call an extreme “heighten.” The self-berating and depression became so unbearable that I stopped being able to function. My parents and therapist decided that I had to take time off from school and go to a residential therapy program for severely depressed teenagers.

Luckily, I lived only 20 minutes away from McLean Hospital, where the program was housed. If you’ve read The Bell Jar, you might recognize McLean as the hospital where Sylvia Plath got electroshock therapy. If you’ve seen Girl, Interrupted, you may recognize it as the hospital where Winona Ryder’s character is sent after her suicide attempt. My point is that this mental hospital is a cultural landmark, a fact that I now frequently wield for social capital when the fact that I have been institutionalized comes up. Being in the hospital felt like a fluke assignment. On some level, I knew that I was in the wrong place because I was in the wrong treatment. The therapy I was doing was for general depression, and I was learning zero strategies for managing my spiraling, intrusive OCD thoughts. On a conscious level, however, I was convinced that a person like me did not belong in the program. The other patients, I disgustingly convinced myself, were actual problem children for whom moving between adolescent residential programs was the norm. I tried to frame what was happening in a way that made sense to me. In my room during free time, I took out my journal and wrote:

I am in the fucking hospital. I feel
like Piper Chapman.

Okay, yeah, that could be my hospital identity. In the TV show Orange is the New Black, which was all the rage in 2013, white entrepreneur Piper Chapman gets yanked from her brownstone and thrown in prison for trafficking drugs in her Smith days. After nights and nights of crying, Piper immerses herself in prison life and eventually works her way into a clique with her ex, who is also in prison? I can’t remember. But. The wrongfully imprisoned Type A. Off the charts problematic and right in my wheelhouse.

To my advantage, the structure of the program gave me a clear trajectory for proving wellness (read: superiority via downward comparison). Patient progress was measured through a merit based levels system. Everyone started on Level Two, and as you demonstrated investment and active participation in group and individual treatment, you moved up levels. This meant gaining privileges: Level Three’s could go out to restaurants on weekends, when there was no programming. Level Four’s could leave campus to visit friends and family. The way to move up levels was to be on your best behavior, and the higher up you moved, the more apt a candidate for discharge you seemed. I was great at seeming great, so I turned on the charm. I treated group therapy like it was AP English, giving my most thoughtful comments about the teenage ethos while we discussed the toxic high school friendships that made my peers suicidal. I never complained when we had to turn the TV off at night, and I volunteered to give new admits the tour of the snack cabinet. I lead daily goal setting group with the congeniality of Tracy Flick from Election on a mood stabilizer. “We look forward to seeing Gabi as president of the United States,” beamed the head of the program as I set down my expo marker at the end of the meeting, leading everyone in a rousing round of applause for me/his ability to teach marketable interpersonal skills to the troubled youth. I breezed through levels like some of the longer term patients breezed through Mario Kart levels every night in the game room. After ten grueling days, I finally got released and went back to school, feeling like raw hell as I prepared to kill it in Pippin.

One morning before school, right after I left McLean, I was crying hysterically in the shower. I felt like I had a medicine ball in my stomach. Suck it back suck it back. Holding down a deluge of despair in an effort toward continuation. And that was when I turned it around, the autobiography said. I decided it was over, so it was over.

***

Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” My slight, context-dependent amendment to that would be that we tell our therapists stories in order to collaboratively maintain a tragically beautiful self image. The summer after freshman year of college, when all the same things were still wrong, I took my mom to coffee and tearfully told her that I felt a deep disconnect with intimacy and sex. I needed to be in therapy, which I hadn’t been in since McLean. We brainstormed options. A family friend knew a cool therapist from when she got raped in her Brown days. I set up a session and felt hopeful.

A year into phone sessions with my therapist, I realized I had been sexually assaulted the summer before college. I was very relieved. This was an explanation with huge, ancient implications. I was part of a whole community and history of pain, not just a weird anomaly. I had been stewing in this nondescript melancholia, and now there was a whole fucked up history to analyze. That summer I saw my therapist three times a week. Each session, we rehashed a different episode of abuse that had occurred two summers before, reframing what I’d been through in an antiparallel narrative. Then she’d send me off with a semi-satisfying takeaway about why “assholes are seductive,” one I’d mull over to Exile in Guyville as I drove home. I figured that if I collected enough mini revelations, I’d get to the big one that would make me comfortable with my past and decisions and body and sexuality and selfhood. When I wasn’t in therapy, I was running around the Chestnut Hill reservoir. Fast. Daydreams of burning down my rapist’s house and snapping his guitar fueled me through miles. I ran around and around and around.

Seven months later I couldn’t leave my bed. It was fine because I looked like shit and who wants to see that? I was weeks overdue with scripts for creative writing classes but there was nothing in my psyche that wasn’t too humiliating to let see the light of day, so I didn’t write. No use in turning my redundant pain into a one act play, it was just too ugly. In fact, it was all irredeemably ugly. When the school year wrapped up, I began to pursue dying. With this I was creative. I faked out falling onto scissors, teased walking into oncoming traffic. I floored the gas and swerved in an intersection before pulling into the parking lot of a children’s swim school and placing my first ever suicide hotline call. Every morning, I dumped a pile of Prozac into my hand and dove into it face down, mouth open. I let the pills stick to my lips before spitting them back into the bottle. I never went through with it. I did take a few dramamine pills though. My dad told me to call poison control.

“What’s going on?” said the lady on the other end of the line. She sounded like that cute girl in AT&T commercials who says “psst, over here” to customers in the tech store and lets them in on the secret of AT&T’s very affordable monthly plan.

“Hey, sooo, I swallowed some dramamine,” I said breezily.

“Why?”

“Um…”

“Why?”

“I don’t super want to be here.”

“You need to go to the emergency room.”

“Like, now?”

“You need to go to the emergency room.”

“Okay.” I hung up and went back to googling “reasons to live.”

Twenty four hours later, I was at the Newton Wellesley Hospital low acuity psychiatric unit.

***

Around 8:15 PM that first night, I’d reached my daily limit for tolerating existence and went to my room. Alone, my self-berating intensified. Self loathing thoughts stacked in my head like bricks. I sat under my paper thin covers and let it happen for several minutes. Then I took out the novel I’d been reading, hoping it would make me want to kill myself less.

I’d been doing a lot of impulse book buying in the weeks leading up to the ward. During that period, I was in the business of obsessively trying to remind myself that I a) still had a functioning intellectual brain and b) wasn’t utterly isolated in my feeling that everything was lost. I turned to my old method of trying to find texts in which I could lose myself (or what was left of myself ) for respite. One hot day in late May, I was wandering the streets of downtown Boston, zonked out on my own brain chemicals like a less stylish Olsen twin circa 2008. I stumbled into a used bookstore and found a book devastating enough for me to relate to: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Oh, Jonathan Safran Foer, the Jewish fiction wunderkind that I would never be, especially now that I was, as my father put it, “troubled.” I sat next to some stoners in Boston Common and intently read the part of the book where the kid’s dad dies in 9/11, furiously doing the mental math to analogize his pain and mine. I too have experienced a shock of losing the self deeper and more seismic than any loss I have known before, and who knows whether I will come back from it. That was the extent of my ridiculous, self-aggrandizing analogy, and I knew it. Still, I read on, hoping I would find any resonance in this story that was fundamentally nothing like mine. I needed a sign that what I was going through symbolized something. That way, I would find my story beautifully tragic enough to be worth continuing.

That night in my hospital bed, I picked up where I’d left off, annotating the text with the pen I’d used to fill out my intake forms. I underlined places where the narrator said “I” and interpreted in the margins, trying to sound like I was still smart. What is “I?” loss = fracture of I = can you reclaim “I” once you know it is disruptable national trauma and national “I” disruption. 9/11 is so sad. 9/11 was so. Sad. Oh my god. The level of loss. So dark. I thought about it and felt like I’d just sipped bleach. My whole body was in pain. I had to put the book away. I took out the blue spiral notebook I’d brought with me and turned to journaling. If I couldn’t find myself in a text, my plan B was to start writing my autobiography while institutionalized. A bestseller from the depths. Literary theory teaches us that the self… I stopped writing. I’d pick it up in the morning. I was too stupid to talk about that shit anyways.

The next day was a Saturday, so there was no therapy programming, and I had all the time in the world to write. I sat down at the long table in the day room, opened my notebook up to that same page, and brainstormed to the background noise of Chip and Joanna Gaines on HGTV. Literary theory teaches us… No. I had to stop. I put the notebook away and started reading an issue of People. Well, first I tried to read an essay collection they had in the day room, which was a bunch of feminist scholars on 9/11. Then I got too sad again and read People. I didn’t pick up the notebook again the whole time I was there.

Sometimes several connected events occur and we arrive at the intersection of those events much later and all at once. In the fall of 2018, I took a literary theory class and read “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” by the theorist Jacques Derrida for the first time. In “Structure, Sign, and Play,” which was given as a speech at the 1966 MLA conference, Jacques Derrida renounces structuralism and the rules it imposes upon thinking and reading (not that he like, invented any of these ideas). He explains that up until the fateful event of his speech, every discourse in the human sciences had been tethered to the practice of finding a center: the irreducible kernel of truth at the apex of all interpretation. Some examples of the center: God, your childhood trauma, the smallest atomic particle. The center is the idea underneath it all that tells us our stories make sense the “why” that we yearn for. Our stories don’t make sense, so the center is a trick of the eye. You can see whole narrative arcs where there’s only stasis, because the center projects illusions and the promise of a release. In this way, the center is a home base that can’t support the weight of the things that really happen to us, or the way that they happen.

Derrida says, “In order not to short change the form and movement of the myth, that violence which consists in centering a language which is describing an acentric structure must be avoided” (Derrida, 1966). You can only avoid this violence if you dedicate yourself to moving through your life, regardless of whether or not it looks like you thought it would. This means responding openly to the unwieldy, stupid ways life moves you. The modus operandi of open response is “freeplay.” Freeplay is enabled through accepting that your life isn’t supposed to mean anything (after all, no center), so you’re allowed to respond to it however you want.

Derrida ends by saying he has no idea what it will be like to carry on without the center, but promises that carving an acentric path will be either glorious, ugly, or both. Through freeplay, you can get crafty and welcome the violence in gorgeous ugly ways.

I, or some version of me, knew I had to give up on finding meaning in the horrible shit that had been happening for so long. Why this was all happening and what it made me look like to the rest of the world was irrelevant. The shape of my narrative was irrelevant. If I wanted to want to live again, I would have to be the active player in my story and stop self-ironizing. It was only hurting me to view my healing from a critical distance.

Sitting in my apartment, I knew that I had just read something I needed to know. Sitting in the day room, I understood it as a challenge. But I didn’t put all this together until much later.

***

I fumbled my way through a new approach.

Stupid joy was a good way in. A few days into my institutionalization, my friend Lauren and I were sitting on the patio during Fresh Air time. Fresh Air time was the daily 15-minute slot when we were allowed to go outside to the gated rooftop patio. It was sunny out, which made for some nice shadows on the brutalist concrete. Suddenly, Lauren, who was always stretching, did a backbend. The nine-year-old failed gymnast in me was jealous and delighted. It was Stick-It perfection.

“Dude. That’s like, an amazing backbend.”

“Thanks. Yeah I used to do gymnastics.”

“For real? Like, how seriously?”

“Aly Raisman and I had the same coach.”

“Holy shit that’s amazing.”

Lauren started to cry. I looked at her, then looked down, then looked at her.

“It’s just like, it could have been, I’m just thinking about how it could have been and it’s whatever.” She wiped a tear from under her glasses. Tears kept coming, but she sucked them back with little sniffles.

I understood. I was probably too fucked up to ever perform again because if I ever had to do method acting I would only have this humiliating experience to draw on, and then I would hate acting and quit performing. I had basically already quit performing when I decided to not go to school for theater. Everything I was a part of made me so unhappy, and I had decided to be there. I was the one who begged my mom to sign me up for that horrible sleepaway camp. If I hadn’t gone to summer camp and gotten bullied by those girls I would have been happier and fucked more people cause I wouldn’t have been so ashamed of my body. I had fucked up every pivotal narrative checkpoint. Whatever. That backbend was so sick. Lauren looked so cool in the sun, just moving her body playfully. I asked her to do it again. She was too upset.

Something changed on the roof. I could breathe a little more. It happened again in arts and crafts group. If you’ve been to a psych ward, you know that arts and crafts is desperately employed to placate people who really need to be in intensive therapy at all hours when there are no therapists on the unit. Historically, I am quick to emotionally withdraw from group therapy activities. That day, however, I was so hopeless that I felt compelled to invest. I needed a break from regretting literally everything I had ever done on repeat in my head. I waited for instructions at the group activity table, which was prepped with magic markers and paper.

“Everyone. Today, we are making gratitude charts,” said Jess the social worker with a cloying smile. She took off her Lululemon warm-up jacket. Just a quick pop-in to help the deranged after her jog.

“A gratitude chart is where you draw a circle, or any shape of your choosing, and write the things you are grateful for in the middle, or coming off of the sides, like a sun.”

Jess pressed a button on her boom box and knockoff Enya began to play. This was our cue to begin. After a couple minutes of dodging thoughts about how I had nothing to be grateful for because I had ruined my whole life and needed to keep reminding myself so that I could stay on my toes and make sure it didn’t happen again, I tried to access a sense of gratitude. I started with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (food, water, shelter) because that’s low hanging fruit. The visual of Crayola ink dancing across a page was kind of comforting. I looked up. Everyone around me was smiling and drawing like they were using markers for the first time and it made me incredibly angry. Being angry gave me a stomachache. I turned back to the paper.

What actually mattered right now? Maybe another way into this was thinking outside of my ruined ego. I visualized brushing it aside like it was a big stone blocking a cave. Almost instantly, I realized that so many people in my life were working so hard to hold me together. My friends picked up every time I called from the payphones in the hall. Sometimes, they even went through the front desk and the you are placing a call to a patient at the Newton Wellesley low acuity psych ward voice message to get to me. My mother, whom I had terrified and traumatized, visited every single day. I filled in about half the circle. It was not revelatory. I was hopeful. I hadn’t been hopeful in five months.

Arts and crafts were not Jess’s only trade. She also led low impact aerobics once a week. This sounded like a nightmare to me, but I was beginning to worry all my muscles would atrophy from sitting so much, so I went. Aerobics was held in the common space between the high acuity ward (for psychosis and related disorders) and the low acuity ward (for depression-and-anxiety). The turnout was surprisingly high. Everyone was wearing colorful sweats, which looked especially bright under the fluorescents. Jess walked in with an iPhone speaker. “Alright everybody, you ready to move?” she said, looking none of us in the eye. She turned on “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire and started us with very slow marching. “Right then left, everyone!” It was helpful that she was telling us which foot was right and which was left, because I forgot.

When I looked around after the Arcade Fire song, the crowd had thinned out significantly. Behind us, someone laughed. It was a patient from the other ward.

“You guys look fucking dumb!” he yelled. We did.

I wanted to leave. So badly. No one was blocking the powered-off TV at the front of the room anymore, so I could see my whole reflection. My hair was in a greasy ponytail. I looked sedated. I would have kept cruelly ogling myself but then “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake came on and everyone started doing grape vines and ski jumps. The fray was moving faster around me, multicolored sneakers traveling from side to side.

A deeply specific humiliation set in. It was like I was simultaneously participating in every dance class warm up that had ever made me want me to exit my skin. Like theater troupe when I was ten. Ten years of maturity down the drain. Mortifying body. My sad stupid situation floored me as Jess yelled “come on!” Do something. I was going to die because I was going to live. Like when you have to stay awake for so long that it hurts. There was no way to un-live what I had lived. No beautiful tragedy. Assault was a cop-out, McLean was a cop-out, and this was the rock bottom truth of how fucking pathetic I was. It was so embarrassing. No community of heroes here. Nothing I can see but you when you dance dance dance dance fuck you, Justin. Don’t look at me. So sad and ugly with a horrible autobiography I couldn’t un-write. Stomach ache. Dance dance dance dance. No way to have a narrative I was even remotely okay with unless I did something to advance it. Evil catch 22. Agonizing dissonance between the ugliness that happened and the rest that I didn’t know yet. I had lost everything. Ugly lights. Everyone’s faces so sad and ugly. Guilt and no art. I ski jumped. I had nowhere else to be. This was the only place on Earth I could be. I ski jumped. I had nothing. Nothing. Fuck it.

Categories
Memoir

The Act of Mapping the Soul

by Eliana Carter | Memoir | Spring 2019

Image by Benjamin Stevens

Before I was born, a house fire destroyed most of my dad’s family photos. His life has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Save for a wallet-sized photo of him when he was around seven years old, I have little idea what he even looked like as a kid or young adult. I know my grandparents and their families migrated from rural Louisiana to Oakland, California, before my father was born. They made their new life there, where my dad was raised. Too many relatives to count now call Oakland home.

Though my dad grew up in California, I am East Coast born and raised. Growing up, we’d board a plane every few years to visit his side of the family. Grandma would cook her famous gumbo on the stove, big pot boiling. Dungeness crab pulled from West Coast waters––a delicacy on our East Coast tongues. Each time I’d show up feeling like a new person, like a lifetime had passed. (If you ask them, they’ll tell you I look the same, just taller.) There’s always been this great distance between me and Oakland, both physically and temporally.

As I grew older, and tried to find my place in the world, understanding myself through my family history became more and more important. What were they like? What did they do? What was left behind in pursuit of Oakland? How far back can we trace my family’s history? I sat down with my dad on Christmas to ask him what he knew. I wanted to finally learn about my family’s history. I wanted to know why they moved, what kinds of stories he heard growing up. We sat down at the kitchen table. In a neighboring room my brother played Christmas tunes on the piano, while my mom read a novel on the couch. It was mid-afternoon, and our dinner was cooking in the oven. Soon we would be gathered around the table to eat, but first, I wanted to sit down and talk. Much to my dismay and surprise, he didn’t know much. I didn’t understand. How couldn’t he?

In 1942, my family moved from rural Louisiana to Oakland, where my father was born and raised. I’ve never known much about what prompted this move. There was racism. They lived in fear. But that was all I heard. When I ask my dad about why his parents and siblings uprooted and transported their home some 2,000 miles West, he doesn’t know much either. He is able to re-tell me the story that his uncles had told him. One day, a group of white men come knocking on his grandfather’s door in rural Louisiana.

My dad tells me,

So they came to him and they said, ‘We saw your son,’ which was my father, ‘With a mule down by the water,’ and they said, ‘You know we could have killed him right there but we didn’t. We didn’t do anything to him.’ They went on to tell him about all the other members of the family and how they had observed them and that they were just letting him know that if he didn’t do what they were asking, they would have trouble. That’s the time when they left the farming life and moved into the city.

So they packed up and moved. I can only assume this was merely one of many instances of racialized violence my family was faced with in Louisiana. My great-uncles told my dad this story; his parents wouldn’t. For my grandparents, the terrors of the South were a dark secret to be kept hidden away from the light. The trauma they endured was to be left there: in the past. No wonder my dad didn’t know much. The information I was looking for wasn’t available to him, even when he asked. As much as they tried to leave the South behind, they carried relics of it with them into their life in California: in the way they talked, the food they ate, and the way they saw the world. Under the surface lived this world of Southern influence.

My dad continues,

It was funny, it was a strange thing. But at the same time there was this sympathetic world right under the surface that was all Southern. There was Southern cooking, people would get together and talk about the past… The kinds of things that they knew about this other world that they lived in. So when they would sit around and reminisce, it was all about this other world. Even though they tried to stay away from it, they brought everything with them.

Listening to my dad talk about this, I begin to crave these stories. What is lost from their insistence that the past was in the past? I understand why they wouldn’t want to speak about these things. There’s something very American in that assertion that the past is in the past, unable to reconcile with histories of slavery. Buried in our history books, it is the insistence that we can all move forward in our own right. That our past does not affect the future, that it doesn’t matter after all. We like to bury the terror and trauma that our families lived through. But when we abandon the past for the present, what are we left with?

The history of my mom’s family is well-documented. It can be traced back centuries, well before they immigrated to America from Hungary. I know a great deal about my family’s lineage on my mom’s side. I could tell you where and when they immigrated, where they lived before that, even the names and occupations of the specific family members. But with my dad’s family, not only could I not trace the movement of my family from one state to the next, I couldn’t even locate them before America. Where did they come from before Louisiana? Africa? Our history, and the history of many African Americans in this country has been erased. Because those who were enslaved were considered property, they were not granted marriage certificates, medical records or census records from which a typical genealogy would be constructed. Pre-Civil War family research for African Americans means sifting through auction records, property ledgers, and bills of sale. A lost cause for many.

Image courtesy of the author

It’s no surprise so many African Americans have little connection to their ancestry. During slavery, children were often forcibly removed from their parents, parents were sold to different plantations, and families were forged, not by blood, but through communities. My last name, Carter, was most likely picked up by my ancestors, who were enslaved by a family named Carter. Our name is not our own.

My dad thinks about this differently, seeing ancestry traced in different ways that don’t always rely on an oral or written history.

Like me, he once believed our history was untraceable. Then my mom got him a DNA kit specifically for African Americans to trace their DNA back to before their ancestors were brought to America.

He explains,

Your mother got me this DNA kit. Called African DNA or something like that. I tried it and it’s like, all of a sudden, you know that there are links to these different African groups. It made it really fascinating. All of a sudden, here’s a concrete thing. It’s in your DNA. Generations of slavery didn’t wash this away. It’s still alive. We grew up as African Americans; we had no connection to the past, really. Except for our families, you know. And to look beyond that was kind of hopeless for a lot of people. We didn’t have any idea we could do that. Only some vague idea of Africa. But I remember my father was always talking about, you know, we’re Americans. We’re not from Africa. We don’t know anything about Africa, so people pretending that we do, that’s really silly. You can’t let people take away your being an American away from you.

Africa—not just some vague idea, but actual groups of people can be linked to my family’s history. We came from somewhere. Not just an entire continent, but actual places and of actual people. We have a history that extends beyond Louisiana. Now we have something that can connect us and it’s something concrete. It’s in our blood. But it’s more than just our DNA. My dad claims he can recognize the legacy and influence Africa has had on his family. He notes the similarities in customs, in ways of making community, in ways of seeing the world. It’s all there under the surface. It was futile to try and leave it all behind.

My dad continues,

The civil rights movement started in Louisiana. Not just Plessy [v. Ferguson], we can go back to Plessy. But even before that there were newspapers, there were political parties, there were support groups, there were some of those groups that were involved in Mardi Gras and those kinds of things. Those kinds of independent societies that were established to support one another. They’re not only some of the oldest in the country, they’re very similar to African societies that are developed for the same purposes. When you see people dancing in the Mardi Gras, those are African dances.

In the early 1990s, a surge of Black films began to be created about Black families going south in pursuit of their roots. In one, Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou, a single mother is sent to live with her uncle for the summer to get her life together. She has no job, and is struggling to support her two children, who are cared for in great part by her mother. She is threatened by her family knowledge. If she does not prove to her mother she is willing to care for her family and understand her family’s history by the end of the summer, her mother will sell their only lasting family heirloom from the slavery period: a silver candelabra that was sold in exchange for her great-grandfather. In this film, and in many others of this time period, knowing your roots is power. To know where you come from connects you to a broader sense of identity. It brings you back home, it reminds you who you are, and it propels you into the future.

Being a descendent of enslaved people means reconciling in some way with the past of slavery: how it shaped you and how you see your role in today’s world. You can’t sit back and look at your ancestry as an African American without thinking of struggle and pushing through. There is no other option but to work for a better future.

In the late ’60s, African Americans began to re-connect themselves to Africa. This was around the time my father was born. Scholars and artists began to re-connect themselves with the idea of Africa as a homeland. Nina Simone famously fled to Liberia in 1974. What began as a visit to see South African musical legend Miriam Makeba ended in Simone’s three year stay. In her memoir I Put a Spell on You she writes, “The America I’d dreamed of through the sixties seemed a bad joke now, with Nixon in the White House and the black revolution replaced by disco … Africa, half a world away from New York. Maybe I could find some peace there, or a husband. Maybe it would be like going home.”

People like my grandfather pushed back on the idea of Africa as a lost homeland, a homeland to return to. We’re American, not African, he said. We don’t know anything about Africa.

My dad continues,

There are things that are just there. They’re a part of your life. And this was infused in the world that I grew up in, too. Things that are considered for most Westerners inanimate are not considered inanimate for Africans or people from my community. So, like, a tree, or a stone, or whatever it is, they’re considered to have some sort of spirit, some sort of intentionality in the world. And that’s the way I grew up looking at things. It was almost like people were joking—but they weren’t really joking. It’s like the way that you treat things in the world and the way that you regard them. You regard them as they are other beings in the world.

There’s a spiritual element, too. A cosmological one. No matter how Christian they were, the way my family saw the world was different, and this was informed by African cosmologies. Many African Americans today take from African spiritualism to inform their day-to-day lives. As a way of connecting to Africa, many African Americans follow Yoruba or other religions derived from Yoruba, a religion stemming from southwest Nigeria. Many Yoruba people were spread across the Atlantic slave trade, and around the world people of the African diaspora practice Yoruba beliefs, which include reincarnation and ancestral guidance in the form of energy and spirits.

I realized that there’s a whole other world that’s informing their existence, but they don’t talk about this much. I remember when you were there eating gumbo one day at my mother’s house, and people were like, ‘Oh, look at that child eating that gumbo. Look at her. Oh, she’s an old soul. No one had to teach her. She’s been here before. But they’re really saying, you know, you’ve been here before. You’re not just new to this world. You’ve been around. You’re a spirit that’s been here. That’s the way they talk but they’re really kind of serious about it. They’re looking for these signs of belonging in something like that. The way you eat something. The way you do something. That’s what makes you one of us.

The predetermined cosmological viewpoint, the ancestral guide which leads you toward goodness, which moves in your step… I’m not sure I believe in this type of thing. Reincarnation is a word that sits like a question in my mouth, but I’m drawn to love it if it means belonging.

Back before we came, Grandma cooked gumbo on the stove in Baton Rouge: sassafras, okra, celery stock. She passed away when I was sixteen. At her funeral, I read Psalm 23. It goes like this:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

It’s a similar sentiment, God as a spiritual guide. Before I started this, I was having trouble placing myself in my family’s history. I was having trouble with the lack of knowledge I had, about who we were, and where we came from. As I continue to learn more about my family’s history, I remember these sentiments: to think of your ancestors as guides, and to walk through life in their memory. This much I can take forward. There is an implicit honor in this—this, to me, is legacy.

Categories
Voices

The Curandero

By Adriana Teitelbaum | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Mikaela Fishman

The story always starts the same way, with the curandero—our nameless, mythical, ancestral patriarch. We wouldn’t have a story at all without him. Since his time we have forgotten his name and precisely where he came from, but we haven’t forgotten him. Our nameless, mythical, ancestral patriarch. Our curandero was a slave. We don’t know exactly where, some unspecied francophone Caribbean island. Legend has it that during a particularly brutal hurricane season, the mistress of the plantation went to visit the slave quarters in the middle of the night, seeking his help. See, her son had gotten sick, and the European doctors and the medicines they brought with them to this nameless island had done nothing to heal him. The mistress had heard tales of our curandero, how he used herbs and natural remedies to cure those on the brink of death. And so she came to him with an ultimatum: Heal my son, and I will make my husband give you your freedom. And so our curandero complied, assuring the mistress that he could indeed heal her son. He warned her, however, that before her son got better, he would get much, much worse. She was skeptical, but desperate, and so our curandero began the healing process. And just as predicted, the master’s son got much, much worse. Until he got better. Our curandero fulfilled his half of the deal, and so the mistress fulfilled hers. He was given his freedom papers and soon after boarded a ship to a little neighboring island. But, like all stories of legacy and magic, ours does not have such a happy ending. Freedom does not come that easily. Our story includes another slave, a brujo, who sought vengeance against our curandero. He was jealous that this opportunity for freedom had passed him by, and so he cursed our curandero so that no matter how far he moved or how long he lived, he and all of his descendants would not and could not ever be truly free.

I can’t remember the first time I heard this story. I have different floating memories of it being told by my mother and my abuelo as a little kid and as a teenager. Arguing over the details with my siblings and cousins. Sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. But no matter how hard I try, I cannot find the moment in which I first heard it. But it has. always been around. Lingering in the shadows with its vague setting and nameless characters. The longer I exist with it, the more desperate I am to know every detail—any detail—that could give me a better chance of understanding myself, my family, and our past. My mother tells me that the majority of the story was lost with the passing of her grandmother’s generation. My bisabuela is often thought of as the last in that line of magic. I never met her. We like to say her ghost still remains at my abuelo’s house in Puerto Rico, playing pranks on her visiting great grandchildren whenever we’re around. But I don’t know if I believe she’s really there. Like most things about our past and our history, I don’t really know what happened. No one does.

The supposed manifestation of our curse is said to happen as we start to age, with the slow losing of the mind. And while we can point to certain elderly relatives whose minds and memories faded with old age, that seems to be more a fact of nature than of magic. So I’ve found myself wondering if maybe the curse looks like something else. I think my abuelo must have felt cursed the day he broke his back in a factory accident, leaving him out of work for months. My mother must have felt cursed that same day when her father was brought home in the back of a pickup truck, unable to move. And there are other things, terrible things, private things that are not mine to write down that have happened to descendants of our curandero, that could theoretically be explained by an almost ancient, freedom-depriving curse.

But none of this is anything out of the ordinary. This is not to say the story isn’t extraordinary. It’s to say that we are not the only family with a curse. One that is missing a few details; something special and old that’s fraying at the edges. If you look broadly at Latinx and Caribbean oral histories, you’ll find a lot of magic. Brujería, Obeah, Santería, Quimbanda. And within that magic, you’ll also find a lot of curses. It’s no wonder that a peoples who have been so brutally conquered and colonized would find themselves feeling powerless to circumstance. If you peel back the layers of who has been cursed and how, the pieces will fall together to reveal what looks a lot like colonialism. That root of all evil. El mal de ojo verdadero. Poverty, violence, intergenerational trauma. In our elite circles of scholarship and academia, these phenomena are pointed to as the consequences faced by the colonized subject. Sometimes I find myself thinking that our curse is a just story someone made up to explain why all this shitty stuff keeps happening. But I don’t like thinking that. It feels too simple. The curandero has always been nameless, and faceless, ambiguously floating in time and space. But I’ve always known him, and always felt so grateful to know that a part of me comes from him. I don’t want to let go of him, or that history, just for an answer I can easily wrap my head around.

So where does that leave me? Some unknown number of generations later, a privileged girl at a prestigious American college, who probably smokes too much weed and whose biggest daily concern is her hair. Am I cursed? Am I doomed to go crazy with old age, to be kept from freedom by a curse put on some ancestor whom I can’t even name? Or am I so far removed, such a watered-down norteamericana gringa, that I have escaped it’s elusive, mythical clutches? Is that freedom? Is it my generation that is truly, finally free? When I ask myself these questions I can’t help but notice that I start to sound like I want to be cursed. As if telling myself that I really am damned by maldicíon will reaffirm an identity that so frequently slips away from me. That feels selfish.

But I’m trying not to be so hard on myself anymore. To not blame myself for where I exist. To be grateful for the sacrifices others have made to get me where I am. I know I cannot be the only one trapped by this long, mysterious history. And if there is one truth to our cursed story, it’s that our. lineage did not stay in one location for long. We weren’t allowed to. All that movement must have at some point felt like being lost. So maybe it makes sense that in all that time, across islands and oceans and continents, there really was a curse and it really did just disappear into the chaos. That doesn’t have to mean that I can’t look at this story as a history. A placeless, nameless, faceless ancestry I can locate myself within. Or at least a part of myself. Amongst countless moving pieces, some of which I have no knowledge, it is reassuring to have this story be a constant. An old world. A beginning.

Image by Amanda Poorvu

The idea of an ancestral homeland, a connection to a land that is older than time, is something those lost in diasporas tend to yearn for. It may be fair to say we even romanticize the concept. Junot Díaz once called it a “longing for elsewheres.” Looking at my family’s history, it makes sense why homeland for us is not so easy to identify. What is Puerto Rico to me, a broken tongued girl who was raised in North Jersey. What was some other nameless Caribbean island to my mother and her siblings, when their own Puerto Rico was an ambiguous mix of white and black, of Estados Unidos and the Caribbean? When their home so frequently moved from island to mainland and back again. At that point, it must become difficult to recognize what is temporary and what is permanent. And what came before that? Official history tells me it must have been the colonizers land mixed with somewhere in Africa. But these nameless places have little meaning to me. So whether or not the story is fact or fiction, magic or nature, a blend of all or none, it is a graspable homeland, one that cannot be taken away by anyone else.

And of course, it has always been an oral history. Passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Over dinners and at parties, late at night and into the early morning. This way it is owned by all and by none. This is exactly why I wanted to write this piece. It is also exactly why I did not want to write this piece. It is the reason I write it warily now, carving this legacy into a physicality, unsure of whether or not it is mine to put onto paper at all. What does it mean for me to be writing about it? Who am I writing it for anyways? I’d like to say it’s just for myself. Or for my
forgotten ancestors, the ones who did not have access to these privileges that rest at my fingertips. Maybe I am writing this for my mother, but I know she has strength enough beyond my words. Part of me fears that I am writing for my peers. As if I have something to prove to the white, wealthy elite that surrounds me. As if my worth lies in my ability to come from as much pain and loss as possible, and as if this story proves it to them. Maybe, in the midst of my desperation to find stability, I have tokenized myself as an emblem of diversity to ease someone else’s guilt.

The closer I think I get to an answer, the more questions I find hiding along this self-reflective path. It is hard to keep track of so much namelessness. It’s even harder to say if I can call it mine. I know I am not done trying to figure out my place amongst this mess of magic and diaspora. I probably never will be. Maybe thinking of it in terms of ownership is too black and white– too stuck in a binary to be true one way or the other. I know that to say the story is not mine, to ignore that part of my biological ancestry is a lie. And to say that it is all I am would also be a lie.

In the very unique, very specific trajectory of my life thus far, our curandero and his story have served a special purpose. And I’m sure that for others—family members I know along with the ones who have been estranged by time and circumstance—this precious story, this terrible curse, has had a different role in their lives. So maybe that’s why we have it. Why it has become a sort of non-material, moveable homeland. It allows us, who feel like we belong to nothing, to feel as if webelong to something. It allows our home to mean more than place. I wish I could end with more concrete answers to all my questions, or with something beautiful about legacy and family and meaning. But answers are not always so static. Sometimes they ebb and flow, migrating across land and water like people.

Categories
Voices

Dent Club

Rory O’Donoghue | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Julia Friend

Waking up on the operating table, I looked down and felt like I saw salsa again, but this time it was blood radiating out from my bandage. My chest was rabbiting up and down, horrifying and uncontained. I remember the visual shock before the pain, but then my eyes spun out and pain hijacked my senses. I had broken bones before—a collarbone, a leg, my nose—but this was another realm entirely. I sobbed in the ICU and begged for anything that could help as my parents massaged my hands. I was on intravenous narcotics, and an epidural was lodged midway up my spine, but I felt sober and busted as fuck.

“You shouldn’t be feeling anything,” the nurse added helpfully as he dressed my bandage, “that epidural is loading you up real good,” and I wanted to bite his head off.

“It… hurts… so… bad,” I whimpered. Each word eviscerated me. Eventually, nurses gave me oral opioids, and I slipped into a groggy din.

***

Ravaged. Such was the immediate aftermath of the Ravitch procedure, a corrective operation for a congenital chest wall disorder—pectus excavatum. The name was like an incantation when I first learned it, beguiling, before I knew its full potential. Pectus Excavatum! Now, almost two years after my operation, the condition sounds much more insidious. It exploded into an epidemic menacing my extended family. I was patient zero.

The night before my surgery, my best friend Amelia called me from Alaska.

“I showed your family the salsa video,” she told me, trying to calm me down. “Your mom laughed but your dad couldn’t watch—he was too uneasy.”

I touched the bruised hollow of my chest, sunken deep in between my pecs and large enough to easily fit an entire fist. I remembered how my friends had eaten salsa out of it at the reservoir several summers ago. The beach was packed, and I was wildly uncomfortable—it had taken a lot of mental acrobatics before I had taken off my shirt at all. Amelia poured the chunky Tostitos over my chest, a makeshift ramekin, and it felt like icy sludge. We went through two bags of Hint of Lime chips, and filmed the whole feast.

Since then I’d grown, escaping most of my high school anxieties. Although my dent deepened in the years since that video was taken, I felt more at ease. This evolving sense of security continued, blooming until my body hit its carrying capacity.

“I can’t believe I’m getting fixed tomorrow,” I confided, marveling at the sheer absurdity of my impending reconfiguration. “No more chips!”

Many months and a twisted series of events later, I found myself comforting my older cousin Keelin on the eve of her own surgery.

“Yeah dude, I’m freaked.”

She looked it. I took a generous sip of cucumber martini as I listened, searching for something reassuring to say to her. I traced the edges of my scar, a year and a half old but still a jagged line etched down the front of my chest.

“It’s a new life, starting tomorrow. You’re going to feel so much better.”

As I spoke, I felt a jumbled knot of responsibility, but also helplessness. Her parents were there, too, all of us out to eat for Keelin’s last non-hospital meal for a while. Everyone was on the brink of unravelling.

“You’re my rock,” she responded, taking my hand. “I’ve been so all over the place. I cried at karaoke till the bar closed last night. I look at how wonderful you’re doing now, though, and I know I’ll make it through.”

“Yeah you will!” I hoped I sounded convincing. “Listen, O’Donoghue Dent Club means business. We’re fighters.”

Later that night, I spiralled through the harrowing events of the past two years. Keelin’s would be the fourth major reconstructive chest surgery in the family, a now far too familiar cycle that all started with me.

I was doing wonderful, but Keelin’s imminent operation had me reeling again. First me, then my younger sister; now, my cousin. I still wasn’t over the shock of such a serious condition lying latent in each of us. What about the others? I worried about my endless clan of Irish-Catholic cousins. What if someone else is next?

***

The human sternum, or breastbone, can tragically go any which way. Pectus carinatum describes an uncommon condition where the sternum protrudes outward, jutting out from the chest wall. Pectus excavatum is just the opposite, where the sternum plunges inward and depresses the thoracic cavity. Each condition brings its own host of health problems, but excavatum squeezes, inhibiting the regular room the lungs and heart take to function. It carves a chunk out of the working capacity of the chest, bowling in where it should be filling out.

This was the main takeaway from the Googling I did in high school; as a clarinetist prepping for conservatory training, I started psyching myself out. What if the crater hindered my progress, or even my career? It changed with puberty and seemed to be continuously expanding. Confident that I felt mostly fine, active as both a musician and a student athlete, I struggled to comprehend its potential. Tracing my contours in the mirror, I gave myself pep-talks.

You’re beautiful.
You’re healthy.
You’re okay.

Pediatricians never said anything about my disfigurement. I scoured the internet, and as I read, I grew more aware of the chest space I lacked. A big chunk was missing. Sifting through pictures and other people’s testimonies, I had no gauge of how severe my deformity was. Or maybe—in some repressed back alley of my mind—I knew something was awry.

Senior year of high school, I made an appointment with my physician. After explaining my concerns and discussing the condition, he red up the ancient HP monitor in the patient room and printed out the Mayo Clinic overview of the condition.

“It’s all I got,” he apologized, handing it to me. “So long as you aren’t in pain, I think you’re ok.” Dismayed by this wet-lettuce diagnosis, I saw no other option but to continue on into the uneasy unknown.

***

With pectus excavatum, rather than staying relatively parallel, the pectus sternum sinks down toward the spine, approaching perpendicular. is intrusion pins the heart against the spinal cord, smooshing the lungs outward. The condition ranges from merely cosmetic to dangerously severe, with many murky stages in between. For conditions that need surgery, several different routes are
available. Circumstances are best when the condition is flagged earlier in life, allowing for easier corrective recourse. For older, more ossified patients, especially those with deep-trench dents like me, the invasive Ravitch procedure is likely the best option.

The primary issue of pectus excavatum is the way the malformed hardware angles the sternum down toward the heart, which is what the Ravitch aims to correct. First, the surgeon severs the ribs and cartilage attached to the sternum. Once freed of the abnormal tissue, the sternum bounces back into correct position, buoyed up by the strong muscles of the heart. A titanium plate is then affixed atop the sternum, fastened it into place with screws drilled into the bone. Once a valley, the chest wall is reworked into a plateau. With reconstruction complete, sternum parallel with spine, everything is stitched back up and made to look as neat as possible.

Over the years that followed my sparknotes-style pediatric visit, I continued my research, and poured over pictures of scars. Some were faint traces, threadlike, and some were gnarly shark jaws. Fantasizing about flatness, I wondered how it would feel to be rid of my own extreme topography.

I repeated this cycle every few months, often following some instance of insecurity. In moments of confidence, I fell back on the cautious ignorance of my uninformed pediatrician, twisting it into reassurance—surely he would have referred me to a specialist if I needed it? But I never fully drove out the incipient doubt lodged firmly deep down.

What if my skeleton bowls further inwards and I slowly squeeze myself out? What if the hollowing completes itself and I have a hole that goes all the way through like a human cheerio? What if I’m impaled, but there’s nothing to impale?

I eventually felt tired and ambivalent about it all. So what. There’s nothing I can do. It was my own little quirk, and sometimes it even had its perks.

Freshman year of college, I’d allow a chosen few to take body shots out of me at parties. It was very intimate, and disgusting, but it was fun. My dent was also immensely practical for snacking—I could firmly lodge a bowl of cereal in it while lying down.

If I breathed in and out while swiveling side to side, my dent would work my lungs like bellows, forcing air in and out. This was completely involuntary—I didn’t have to actually breathe; the squeezing breathed for me. I would feel extremely lightheaded, but generally I thought it was kind of cool.

Moreover, there was a disconnect between the visual and the physical. My chest looked every bit as bizarre as the serious cases sprinkled throughout the internet, but my symptoms didn’t seem severe. A lifelong cross-country skier, I never noticed a discrepancy between me and my teammates, even though the one 25K race I ever did felt like slowly dying a two hour death. I ran, I skated, I swam.

As a wind musician, I pushed. There were moments in orchestra where my vision would blur, but it was usually at a point of musical climax, everyone wrapped in full-blown intensity; I assumed it was hard for everyone else too. During one outdoor concert, I suddenly weakened and felt my clarinet slip between my fingers, nearly hitting the ground before I caught it. I skipped the next few measures, recovering, and was soon fine. These experiences were normal, simply the ones that
governed each day, and I thought little of them.

My symptoms felt even more inconsequential compared to the horror stories that populate the pectus community online. Posture is a big one—some people are permanently contorted, twisting around themselves like frayed rope. Some people can’t walk upstairs without stopping for air. Some peter out mid-sentence as their lung capacity betrays them, working overtime to do half as much.

It was easy to distance myself.

Until things got worse.

As I geared up for my junior recital in April 2017, I was demanding more of my body than before. Practicing nonstop, I registered some weird chest pressure, like a suitcase crammed beyond capacity. I couldn’t stop to think about it. When my big performance loomed close, the pressure turned into pain. I kept it fully relegated to the backburner, unwilling to relent.

My recital happened without a hitch, but the pain doubled down the week after. I called Student Health, hoping for a normal appointment. They instructed me to hang up and go to the emergency room immediately. Chest pain protocol. I felt a sense of something loosening as I headed to Mercy Allen Hospital. Not an emergency visit per se, but the inevitable start of something new.

As I checked myself in and discussed the pain, I was whisked away to what I thought would be any number of different tests. The room where they took me felt tired—cracked linoleum floors, scungy pamphlets, washed-up monitors that probably should have been retired years ago. They did an electrocardiogram to ensure I wasn’t actively dying, and then the doctor on call (a podiatrist) entered the room to talk to me.

“Well, your vitals look good, nothing seems too wrong. We’ve got to talk about your chest though… it’s pretty deformed.”

“Yeah, haha, I know,” I managed, instantly recalling every offhand locker room comment that haunted my childhood. He went on. “Basically, you don’t have enough space in there for what you’re trying to do.”

“Um… what do you mean?”

“You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Your body is made wrong. At least for what you’re doing. You’re gonna need to make some substantial lifestyle changes or else you’re not gonna make it.”

Well aware that I wasn’t exactly mistreating my body, I was skeptical and upset. What was it that I was “doing?”

I asked if he could refer me to a specialist.

“No, we don’t really do that.”

They sent me on my way, equipped with nothing but a prescription for taking it easy. I called my mom. “Yeah, I dunno.” I binge-chewed gum. “That was pretty useless.”

I located a team of specialists at the Cleveland Clinic, but they couldn’t see me until June. Two months to wait. Cue my liminal, nebulous anxiety. Pressure mounted, but the physical blurred into the mental; I couldn’t tell what was truly internal or not.

I scaled everything back, bowing out of performing for the rest of the semester and begrudgingly complying with Mercy’s lifestyle changes, which felt like a crock of bullshit. I stopped exercising, forcibly relaxed, and waited to figure out what was up.

My appointment finally rolled around, and this time I underwent a complex array of tests. One particular gem was the worst thing I’ve ever agreed to do in any setting—sprinting on a stationary bike and inducing repeated hyperventilation while my blood was drawn. They told me to wear casual clothes, but my skinny jeans and Birkenstocks were devastatingly incorrect. Afterwards, sitting ill at ease in wet denim, I finally had my answer.

The Haller Index (HI) is the standard metric for assessing chest dents. It’s a ratio of the actual distance between the sternum and spine compared to the potential normal distance, with ribcage size factored in as well. An HI under two is considered normal variation, between two and five means possible candidacy for surgery, and cases over 3.5 are severe and would absolutely benefit from surgical correction.

Mine was a 6.9.

“A… what?” I stammered.

“Yeah, it’s a big boy,” Dr. Raymond joked.

“Your HI is in the top 5% worst reported cases.”

“For some people it’s more a matter of cosmetics,” he explained. His voice was warmly comforting, sturdy and tinged with a light asthmatic wheeze. “Their chests are abnormal enough to warrant concern, but we can’t really guarantee that surgery would improve things one way or the other. With you, there’s no question.”

As I listened to Dr. Raymond, I felt as if the leatherette chair firmly beneath me transformed into an ejection seat, catapulting me into the air. I was still recovering from the blood-bike stint, but my heart rate took off again. He went on.

“Your breathing capacity is—at most—70% of what it could be. Your circulation is greatly impacted. Most people in your condition can’t even walk up stairs. We’re frankly pretty baffled that you’ve made it this far unencumbered. It’s going to change your life.”

It was as affirming as it was terrifying. Suddenly, everything leapt into flux. Above all else, I felt quiet validation. Life truly had been as hard as it felt! A less constricted future is possible? I called my parents, excited to finally have some clarity, and told them I had good news.

“WTF,” they reacted when I told them the prognosis, “that is not good news.”

This response sobered me up.

Everything was set to change. I cancelled my plans to study abroad, full scholarship, at 中央音乐学院 (Central Conservatory of Music) in Beijing. I called the clarinet instructor at the prestigious summer festival I’d been accepted to and told him I couldn’t attend. Dr. Raymond thought it best to move quickly, and I scheduled my appointment. I had three weeks.

***

Surgery steamrolled me, flattening everything out, and the immediate aftermath was all violet haze as my new form solidified. My senses slowly trickled back, grappling for autonomy over the dizzying array of narcotics coursing through my system, and I re-met my body. Recovery was an amorphous blur, and I measured it by triumph checkpoints:

Day 2: I breathed my deepest breaths. I cried at the awe of it all.

Day 4: My catheter was removed. Peeing autonomously was a momentous victory.

Day 5: Released from the hospital, I took my first car ride. Even the smallest jostle was an intimate reminder of the new titanium sorely affixed onto my sternum. Still, leaving the hospital was joyous.

Day 7: “You have a visitor!” My mom woke me and stepped out of the way to reveal my boyfriend. “Hi!” he said cheerily. He flew across the country to surprise me, and I was certain I was hallucinating. “… What?” I was dumbfounded, and turned to the wall to clear my vision. But he was there, and my heart flooded with lightness.

Day 10: My drainage tube, which siphoned out upwards of 30ml of bloody pulp per day, was removed. “Exhale!” my doctor commanded as she pulled it out from the tiny incision above my belly-button, but I gasped. The tube was 10 inches longer than I expected.

Day 17: I weaned off Oxycodone. Although I still kept up maximum doses of Tylenol and Ibuprofen, sensation sharpened into a grittier reality. I felt raw.

Day 22: Dr. Raymond cleared me to make the long flights back to Alaska at last. Turbulence bruised me, and I felt like I might split open. I was home.

In an effort to find clarity in all the murky delirium, I walked. I treated myself to a Fitbit and spent my days in the woods, taking my dogs on five, six, seven mile expeditions. Everything was easier than before. Climbing steep hills, my eyes stayed sharp, free of the dizziness I had always taken for granted. Bewitched by interior Alaska’s summer sprawl of 24-hour sun, I walked my way through recovery. Days and nights of hikes turned into weeks and months:

Month 2: I flew back to school for fall semester, relying on complete strangers to lift my bags and open doors for me because I could not.

Month 4: At last, cleared to run! That first time back on the treadmill, my atrophied muscles were quaking but my lungs were so full.

Month 6: Finally, blissfully, I got to take my back brace off. I lifted more than 5 lbs for the first time in 6 months.

These first few months were grueling, full of maddening plateaus of progress and speckled with sharp, bitter pain, but the sheer newness of everyday activities was thrilling. Walking my dogs. Standing up quickly. Holding my breath. Every activity was imbued with a newfound ability. So this is what it feels like.

***

Just as I emerged from the danger zone post surgery, my family flew into chaos once again. Rachel needed dent surgery too. Thirteen and on the brink of high school, my spunky younger sister had gone through the slew of tests back when I was in the hospital, just to be safe. We knew she had pectus excavatum too, and I had urged my parents to get hers looked at while we were all in Cleveland.

“I don’t want her to end up like me!” I guilted them dramatically, and unfairly. They, of course, felt terrible that I’d gone so long without seeing a specialist. And now her tests had come back. Hers was severe.

My parents chose Cleveland Clinic, my own thoracic alma mater, for Rachel’s procedure. Suddenly the four of us were there again. Younger and infinitely more malleable than me, she would be undergoing the Nuss rather than the Ravitch, the minimally-invasive of the two. Nuss incisions are cut at the side rather than down the front, into which a curved stainless steel bar spanning the entire chest is threaded. Angled down, the bar is then torqued outward, popping the malformed cartilage out as if fixing a dented car. If all goes well, the hardware is removed after two years, unlike the Ravitch’s permanent plate, and the ribcage holds its new structure on its own.

As Rachel went through her prescribed pre-op routine the night before her appointment, she maintained ferocious chill.

“It’s gotta get done,” she said matter-of-factly, “so I’m doing it.”

We called our brother, who was born between the two of us and irritatingly unafflicted by the condition. He felt bad, wishing he could be there. He also didn’t exactly know what we were going through, and the older brother in me was relieved to keep him away from all of it.

Rachel sounded so unbothered. She had been by my side throughout my entire ordeal, witnessing my agony in the ICU first-hand, and here she was, assuaging the rest of our anxiety with her own steadfast confidence. I loved her so much for it.

Early the next morning, she was markedly more tense as we headed to the hospital, but still determined.

“I can’t wait to boss people around!” she joked. “You’re gonna be my servants!”

I’ll do anything for you, I thought, terrified. Please please please make it through okay.

Even as she changed into her gown, she kept her resolve. A nurse gave her “happy juice,” a pediatric cocktail to ease the worries most kids experience. She unnervingly laughed herself to sleep. We could do nothing but wait.

Watching my sister go through hell was far worse than going through it myself. From her first waking hours, tripping hard in the “Harry Potter Land” she emphatically described to the nurses, to the long days of harsh reality that followed, I held her hand and willed her to be safe.

She was immensely nauseous, annihilated by each successive incompatible narcotic that her care team tried, and each time she vomited I imagined her bar racketing around inside. I snapped at the nurses. I berated my beyond-exhausted parents, harping on them every time they misremembered a minor detail while talking to doctors. I spent night after sleepless night in her room. Even though I wasn’t helping anything, I couldn’t leave her.

Her surgery happened during my spring break, and as soon as she was discharged from the hospital I went back to school. Her initial recovery was much like mine—hard, amorphous, changing day by day. My family eventually headed home, and I felt a wash of guilt-tinged relief.

“The bar slipped,” my mom said blankly, in shock.

“It’s been moving. They looked closely at her two month post-op x-rays, and it’s rotating upwards.”

I sunk into a sick dread.

“The shift is driving it like a wedge against her sternum,” my Dad followed. “They’re worried it’s going to depress back down.”

Aside from immediate complications, recurrence of pectus excavatum is every patient’s main concern. It occurs in just around 10% of cases. Rachel’s hadn’t fully recurred, but doctors flagged the warning signs during her check-up, and called my parents.

“She’s gotta get it redone.”

It was only a matter of when.

“It’s a little riskier,” her new doctor, a specialist in Nuss redos (who studied under Nuss himself) at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Virginia, explained. “We have to work around all the scar tissue, and we won’t know how much there is until we’re in. But the sooner, the better.” They would remove the old bar, cut away the messy lattice of scar tissue, and install two new ones.

This was my deepest fear. Relapse and a second surgery seemed inconceivably awful. And now Rachel had to go through it.

***

However frightening, surgery came and went, upending everything once again but much more successful than the botched first go round. I couldn’t be there this time, which was probably a blessing for everyone involved.

Fittingly, Hurricane Florence was in full swing, menacing Virginia and complicating an already dramatic process. My parents slept at the hospital because their AirBnB was evacuated. At the center of the storm, Rachel weathered the second overhaul of her body well, and everything went smoothly.

She kept the first bar and fashioned it into an earring rack, mounted on a backboard she painted. It’s a substantial size, at least a foot long and alarmingly thick. “And soon I’ll have two more!”

Keelin’s went well too. She’s now five months post-op, Rachel nearly seven (from the second operation), and come June, I’ll be at two years of unrestricted breathing. Life—this new, more manageable one—feels surreal. I still scrutinize myself in the mirror, chronically self-obsessed, but it’s no longer flushed with fear. I look at myself and think about my heart, lounging around happily in its new terrain. I celebrate my lungs and imagine their abundant joy at inhabiting such luxurious quarters.

Maybe I’ll run marathons. Or maybe I’ll just sit outside, happily taking in each billowing chestful of summer’s air, silky-sweet. Either way, it’s a delightful gift to finally feel whole.

This is the future I see waiting for Rachel and Keelin. We are all getting through this together. It’s a makeshift support group, but it’s a lovely one—no one else really understands. We’re the O’Donoghue Dent Club, an illustrious society composed of our own weird trifecta. Benefits of membership include permanent bragging rights, grisly scars, and a whole lot of shared empathy. The ODC is a highly exclusive club; as Founding Member, I’m hoping for no more recruits.

Categories
Voices

Being You is Also Nothing

by Francesca Mansky | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Editors’ Note: This piece contains descriptions of sexual violence.


July is when, feet pressing against the moss, I tiptoe to the coast. Peripheral sketches of trees on the horizon line, Prussian blue fractals sway with the wind. The reeds are sharp and I’m bleeding from my feet when they slip through the water. My skin seems to melt off my arms and legs with the sunscreen, and I smell like grease. The cool water laps at my calves and takes the sunscreen with it. Kaleidoscope oil spinning away from me, the surface of the water is repelled by my body. I would also like to spin away from my body but I don’t because lunch is almost ready.

I feel like a plucked goose, covered in oil and baking in the sun and melting and rotating slowly. I can’t stand the smell of myself, and I can’t stand the feeling of myself against myself. The feeling is hairy and greasy and hot. The sun is everywhere: on the water, on the grass, on my hair.

I have watched a seal all day—a seal which looks like a black sea bird. Maybe it is a bird. Sometimes it dips below the surface with a splash, and the water around it flips like a deck of cards switching hands. A pair of white gulls sew themselves against the tree line farther and farther until they are sky. I call my sister to see the seal, and she sees its black, oil slick head. It flies away, turning to sky as well. My sister and I are hovering too, sunspots above the dew covered grass.

We blink at each other and return to our bodies. Her body tells me everything and nothing. She is fourteen. She is hiding, she is hypervisible. (Helena crying, Helena slamming her bedroom door, Helena, what’s up? Helena: Nothing!, Helena covers herself, Helena: Don’t look! Helena crying.)

I watch my sister yelling at my parents and getting yelled at by my parents and am disgusted and ashamed of myself (my mother assures me: I was much worse). The hormones in my body at fourteen seemed to manifest in about a million screaming cells which I wish I could retroactively have told to be quiet. To pat each fourteen- year-old Francesca cell and say, It’s okay, what happened to you is okay, being you is hard, but being you is also nothing. But I can’t because those cells died and made way for new, slightly less angry cells, or slightly-better-at-hiding-it cells. Some of my cells are still angry, swollen, yelling. I can feel them fuming after eight years. I can also hear some of them crying. But all of Helena’s cells are screaming and red. I want to shhh them. At the same time, in the moments after she slams her bedroom door, I want to turn into a bird, and carry her off to a mountain, and take her away from her body and the bodies of others. And maybe feed her worms and nest together.

My body is marked by time, and by moments which have torn that time away from me. These moments hurled through my history at lightning speed and destroyed my timeline. Things obviously from my childhood lodged themselves into last week, breakfast was a year ago, and explanations don’t paint the picture of this wobbling, unreliable record which sits smugly in my mind.

Pockmarks in the body of my life, as I run my hands along this body, they get caught against the scars and impression lines of moments which still won’t heal. I have a horrible memory, made worse by my constant assertion that I have a horrible memory. But unlike everything else, these marks won’t fade as years go by. Instead they deepen and discolor with exposure to the sun. I don’t really know what happened, because I can’t remember, and I am alone with this non-memory. But with each day the non-memory etches wider, lower. Sunlight taps mirror and I try to catch this reflected light onto my sister’s body. Where are her marks? What are her non-memories?

I want to see my sister as her own person. Or I want to want to see my sister as her own person, but she progresses through my timeline with a five-year delay. I am in a constant state of wondering which pockmarks her body has stopped at and skipped like a CD, repeating words that don’t make sense. Which non-memories do her fingers draw circles around like the water in the drain in the sink, like the sunscreen on the surface of the lake?

I have watched her grow from tiny tiny small to small to big small, and all the tweenage yelling in my house are fights I’ve had with my mother on opposite sides of a wall. I sit on the couch downstairs and hear Helena slam the door to her room, and I am on my bed sobbing again, my hand shaking from the force exerted to shut myself back into my space. Wailing, shaking, careening back into myself. I am telling a stranger something on Omegle, I am thirteen, I am writing FUCK YOU very small on the wall, I am scratching my arm, I am squeezing out a bottle of toothpaste into the sink. Breathing deeply, I am back on the water with Helena.

We squint at the bay together and a cat that lives in the house pads between us. He is fat and orange and hot from the sun.

“Sweet cat,” Helena says, stroking his fur. The cat is purring against her palm. He must be a time travelly cat because it’s

August now and I’m in an air-conditioned apartment in Carroll Gardens, sitting with a man who has told me he is getting back with his ex-girlfriend within the week.

I am looking at him, and he is looking down at my legs, and my hand is on his thigh, and his words are not really making sense.

“But I think we should enjoy this time we have together.”

I am nineteen years old, but five years ago I was fourteen. And two years ago I was a virgin, and ten years ago I was nine and he was grown already. His hand feels like a baseball mitt rubbing my thigh, and he’s looking at my breasts and saying we should enjoy this time together because we’ll know each other for a long time probably, he thinks, because I’m very special and not necessarily less wise than his ex-girlfriend. He says she is as wise as me, even though she is twenty-nine. I wonder, honestly, if there’s a chance she’s just as stupid.

I get a cup of water for him and make a joke about poisoning it, and we laugh together. And then I say just kidding and then I make a joke about killing his parents and we laugh together again.

I am silent sitting next to him on the bed as he strokes my hair. His dick is growing in my hand, and even as I say, “I’m sad, this hurts me,” and he says “I know, I know,” (which are words of understanding) he becomes harder and harder, as he humps my palm. “I don’t want to yet,” I say, when he rubs his boner on my hip bone. He sighs, “fair enough.” But his face says no fair and his exhale also says no fair. But it’s no fair to me because he was so nice and he holds me with his big hands which also handle money and grown-up things and that means I’m also a grown-up thing. When he lets go of my body and sulks at the end of the bed, I am a kid again, and I want my mom. And I want to kill him.

I blink back to July, back to Maine, back-to-back with my sister on the sharp grass. She faces towards the house and I am looking at the water, at the seal or the bird. The cat rubs against me, then my sister, then me and is very fat and is stuck in time circling us. I try not to take it personally that Helena shaves now. We are both closing our eyes although I cannot see her face, and I wonder what she thinks has happened in my past, and if she links it to her future too. Is that ridiculous? Is this my OCD? These questions are not specific to Maine or to July. They may not even be specific to me.

Helena does not talk much in this story because I can’t remember what she said in Maine, in July, and it would feel like a lie if I fluffed this up with dialogue from my sister (like when I lied about her saying

“Sweet cat” even though she probably did say that at some point while we were around him, but I just don’t remember.) Helena laughs often and rolls her eyes just as often.

Sometimes, I look at her and all I feel is pain; all the time I look at her and all I feel is love. Because I was inundated with pain as a fourteen-year-old that tangled up in my genes and sat there and sunk into my body like Spider-Man venom when he gets bitten by the spider. When my powers manifested, though, I could not shoot cum out of my hands and swing from things or kiss women upside down. Instead I could cry in a chair for an hour in front of my silent psychiatrist, and I couldn’t go on the subway sometimes, and I could tell women, “I know what you feel,” when they told me terrible stories. These were all powers that hurt and made me better and made me worse.

April kisses Brooklyn, and I have landed back in New York because of a breakdown at school. I am sulking around my house like a ghost, a shadow of the girl who grew up here before. My nuclear family bounces around me, with their jobs and school obligations. I float, I spin. On Sunday night, my sister is sobbing in her room and my mother is texting me. She thinks, “I’m bad at being a mum.” Blasphemy! Because it’s blasphemous. How could she control the storms which raged unrelenting against the windows of her daughters? My sister makes me scared to have kids because she is difficult (again, less difficult than I was) but my mother says I owe her grandchildren.

Helena skips school the next day because she is unprepared for her tests and is very disorganized. I tell her it is “very bad” to skip school, although I’m a nine-hour bus ride away from school, which I am skipping, whereas she is only twelve stops on the Q away from school. We go to coffee and breakfast and Mum texts us yelling THIS TIME IS FOR STUDYING! NOT FOR HANGING OUT!

We drink our coffee and laugh about being in ninth grade and fourteenth grade, respectively, and our funny and loving mum, and which Kardashian each member of our family would be, and how embarrassing it is to be alive.

I try and help her study for her history test, and I casually mention I am writing about her in a piece I’m submitting for a campus publication.

“Me? Is it bad?”

Is it bad?

Is it bad?

No. It’s not bad.

I get dinner with my grandma that night; we are kindred spirits because we both have mood disorders. The air is so warm and the light in the restaurant is yellow and we are sitting by the windows at the front. Young couples and old ladies sit around us; their conversations marinate into a soupy white noise humming, spiraling around me and my grandma.

I tell her I don’t want to talk about college because it’s painful, and she says that she also hated college when she went in the ’60s although she, too, doesn’t want to talk about it. We both have a glass of red wine (our preference), and my grandma looks at me and starts to cry because we are the same. She wants to see me as my own person. But I’m circling and skipping around her timeline with a fifty-six-year delay. I pat her frail arm under the layers of black clothes she wears as if she’s in mourning.

“How’s your sister?”

“She’s okay. She’s anxious, she’s difficult, but she’s okay.”

I am trying to talk about my sister, but I am really just talking about me. My words circle the drain: me, my sister, me, my sister, me, me, me. I have pain linked to growing older, and I watch as my sister grows older everyday. I think I’ve forgotten that I do too, because circling drains has made me dizzy, and tracing memories has made me exhausted.

Me and my sister, my sister and I sit back-to-back on the grass in front of the receding hairline which is the water licking the shore. My sister journals because of me, and that is an undeniably beautiful gift I have given her.

It’s quiet now between us, although our cells are screaming and yelling and singing and crying and slamming the doors. I don’t know what she’s thinking so I open my eyes and look up. I can’t describe the sky at 8:00 PM, pink against the coniferous trees, blue against the floating mist, orange against the stripped brown bark, the gray shingles of the roof. White against my wishes, it rains.

Categories
Town & Gown

Down at the Discotheque

by Gillian Pasley | Town & Gown | Fall 2018

Images from the Fall 2018 issue

Forty years in ’Sco history.


Forty years and hundreds of thousands of wristbands later, it’s remarkable that at first glance the “Dionysus Disco” still looks like an empty room. If you don’t believe me, enter through the double doors early in the evening, before anyone arrives. Hand Shirley your ID, walk across the hardwood floor past the rust-colored pillars and blue high-top tables pushed against the wall, to the bar facing the slightly elevated stage. When the room is empty, nothing about the space asserts its storied history—it’s a blank slate. The ’Sco is humble, perhaps to its detriment. Yet there is a certain magic about the space, for those who’ve known it well—a sense of a chaos and catharsis in its history of late nights and tall tales. There are ghosts in the ’Sco, ghosts that linger onstage and on the floor long after the house lights go up at one o’clock and “Mama ’Sco” yells for everyone to get the hell off the ramp. The stories are in the air there—when you start to see them, it begins to look a bit less like an empty room and a bit more like a vibrant collection of reconstructed memories, gathered over years and years of dancing and drinking and listening. As a booker, I have my own ghosts, my own stories—but the ’Sco has meant something different to each and every person who has worked, danced, or played there. Its legacy is built from all those discrete memories and meanings, some true, some untrue, all largely unverifiable. It’s impossible, then, to construct a “true” history of a place that is so based on individual experience, selective and transformed memory. A linear history is hazy at best. But there are so many stories.

“It will be a place for the people who want to dance,” said Clark Drummond, former Associate Dean of Students to the Oberlin Review. It was September of 1978 and disco fever had hit Oberlin. Drummond noted an instance during the previous academic year when “the music was turned up in the lobby of Wilder [and] everyone started dancing.” So in the fall semester of ’78, a disco opened in the basement of Wilder Hall, forcing a beloved game room to move to Hales. In typical Oberlin fashion, many were unhappy with the move. “These people are behaving like feudal lords ruling their own private fiefs,” wrote a student in the Review. “This new ‘disco’ will be open only three hours a night for several days a week, and the game room is to be ejected to Hales Gym—where is that?” And although it sounds silly in hindsight, the frustrations of these game-lovers make a certain amount of sense. There was no budget, no beer, no real plan to speak of. Nothing but a hardwood floor, some speakers, and the idea of dancing.

It’s hard to imagine the ’Sco as it was—no live shows, no bar. “It was basically just one big empty room,” said Gareth Fenley ’83, who arrived on campus in 1979 to word of the new “disco.” But the student DJs played their music and sure enough, the room became the place for those who wanted to dance. “During that period, it was a dance club, not a music venue,” said Josh Rubin ’85. Jeff Hagan ’86, who worked at the ’Sco from 1983–1986, remembers that “we opened at 10:00 PM and closed at 1:00 AM and in those three hours you had such a cross-section of Oberlin… At about a minute after ten, someone would come over after just studying for hours at Mudd, dance by herself for 40 minutes, and then leave when everyone else arrived. It felt like one of the few places most of the campus came to.” The ’Sco was a place to meet, to hang out with friends in a time when texting was not an option. “The only way you could leave a message for your friend was to write a note and tape it to their mailbox,” explained Chris Baymiller, who worked for 32 years as the Associate Director of the Student Union. “So people would come by, and it would say ‘meet me in the ’Sco tonight.’” Although it was mostly a space for socializing, there were some live concerts in the space during these days, but they were infrequent and mostly Oberlin bands or local acts. There was no money to pay for artists or sound, and people seemed happy enough just dancing. Programming was “just basically DJs,” said Shirley. Shirley has worked at the ’Sco for 33 years. “Fridays and Saturdays we used to have security here, because we’d have lines out the back door,” she remembered.

To make matters even more unfamiliar, Oberlin was technically a “dry” town at the time. The only alcohol that could be sold was “3.2 beer,” which was, of course, only 3.2% alcoholic. The Rathskeller offered beer for students to purchase, but Chris Baymiller saw an opportunity. “We had this keg that was being run by food service,” he explained. “It was pathetic. I kept saying, ‘you guys have gotta do something more than have this friggin’ keg here.’” He urged Dining Services to do more with the 3.2 beer operation, but “they said [they] can’t make money. Who can’t make money on a bar? Come on. So it was like, give it to me, I’ll take it over.” When the town finally began to allow alcohol sales, the ’Sco was quick to meet the demand. “We started getting microbrew beers and everything,” said Baymiller. “The place exploded.”

In many ways, Chris Baymiller was the catalyst in the ’Sco’s transformation into the storied music venue it is today. In the beginning, he says, things were sparse. They needed to build an empire. “We had no money,” he laughed. “We had no sound, we had nothing.” The trick, then, was in the budgeting. “It did help that I was in charge of the budgets,” he confessed. “Within a number of years, we kept pumping up our own budget.” It wasn’t overnight, but a transformation occurred. Eventually they were buying $60,000 sound boards for Concert Sound. “We had systems that were second to none.” Thus ’Sco’s reputation as a venue began to kick off, as Baymiller and his team of student bookers worked to bring national touring acts to the big room in the basement.

We take this for granted now. Concerts are just a part of what the ’Sco is. Sometimes people come, sometimes people don’t. But at the time, what they were doing was somewhat revolutionary. While touring bands would sometimes set up in dining halls or town bars at other schools to play shows, Oberlin was the first to establish what was essentially a student-run nightclub and music venue on campus. “What was cool about it was not only were you the booker, other students that reported to me were doing the sound… That was so unique, nationwide,” Baymiller explained. “There was no college putting on shows like we were doing… It was an all in-house production. It was a great learning experience.” As a current ’Sco booker, I can attest to the magic of pulling off a show—some of my shows have led to my most treasured Oberlin memories. Last November, for instance, I brought Jonathan Richman, my all-time favorite songwriter, who played to a packed house before finding his van had been towed—at which point I had to drive my musical hero to a junkyard in Elyria, where we became actual friends. It’s moments like that that I feel myself mythologizing, even one year out—so one can only imagine how much reminiscing goes on after decades.

These sorts of beloved memories are especially important for ’Sco genealogy—regardless of their factual accuracy. Chip Vhite, a former booker, relayed one such memory, recalling that “the ’Sco was the first place outside of New England that Phish played. This was back in ’89 or ’90 or so. I was on Concert Board at the time, and Phish sent us this janky homemade press kit with a cassette, photo, and one-page write-up of the band. We listened to it, decided they sounded quirky and interesting, and I called up their manager, whose first response was ‘Wow, the mailing worked!’” Of course, if you consult the well-kept archives of die-hard Phish fans, you’ll find that Oberlin was not anywhere close to the first place Phish played outside of New England. But in a way, I don’t think that matters. This story, this memory, this individual or collective idea is part of the ’Sco’s constructed history. If the space is built from memories, it doesn’t necessarily make a difference if the memories are entirely accurate. What is remembered becomes true, becomes legacy. That’s how ’Sco history works.

At its height in the ’90s and ’00s, the ’Sco was hosting upwards of 60 shows per year. Bands like Guided By Voices and The Black Keys packed the house—as an advisor to SUPC, Baymiller liked to encourage bookers to “pull the trigger on [booking] a big band.” But the bookers were also willing to take risks on unestablished artists with promise. “We were able to get really early hip-hop shows, with Common and Mos Def,” said Baymiller. “Other colleges didn’t want them.” As humble as it may appear, the ‘Sco has traditionally been on the cutting edge in terms of booking—for many alumni, the shows they stumbled into might well be the shows they brag about to this day. Shows that became legendary for their importance in hindsight were often not wildly out of the ordinary in the moment. Acts that could now play for thousands were not always easily recognized. When Blink-182 played in 1997, the same week they hit MTV, the “room wasn’t even full,” said Shirley. “People hadn’t heard of them. They’re all over MTV but nobody had heard of them.” Sleater-Kinney, with a little-known band called The White Stripes opening, were famously turned away from a party after their show in 2000, because the house was “too full—as if there were a legal capacity to which they were adhering and only so many rubbery vegan hot dogs and red Solo cups to go around,” Carrie Brownstein wrote in her 2015 memoir. And when Kendrick Lamar played the ’Sco in 2011 before he released his first album, the Review reported that “Kendrick may not have been ready for Oberlin. Sure, he’s worthy of praise, but at this early stage, I think it’s too hard to tell just how much.” Knowing what we know now, I would be willing to bet that the Review reporter might tell that story a bit differently in hindsight.

For a venue with such poorly kept official records, it’s remarkable how every ’Sco patron retains their own version of events, their own ’Sco mythos and favorite, or “top five” favorite shows. And for some, those memories mark life-changing moments. Ashley Roberts ’10 recalls seeing Cat Power at the ’Sco when she visiting as a prospective student—“she had everyone in the ’Sco sit around her in a circle, cross-legged like children, because it made her feel less anxious,” she recounted. She fussed over the lighting, the tuning of her instrument, implored audience members to bring her a beer, which they did. And then she gave this incredible performance, with all of us rooting her on. After that day I remember saying to [my friend who hosted me] ‘you found our people!’ and to the person at admissions that interviewed me later on ‘I found my people!’”

This is what ’Sco history is made of—not a list of shows, not a rise or a fall, but moments like these. A true chronology of the ’Sco cannot exist, because each student, each DJ, each bartender, each booker knows it differently. A show that someone left to smoke on the ramp or go to a party changed someone else’s life. And therein lies the magic. An archive couldn’t do that justice.

The “Disco” began in 1978 as many Oberlin institutions do, in a strategic move from the administration to meet some perceived student need. In this case, the Associate Dean thought that the students needed a place to dance. And dance they did. Over the years, the ’Sco has strived to meet the needs of the students at that time, but I think it’s important to note how much those needs have evolved. For instance, the ’Sco of the ’80s, complete with student DJs playing their favorite records every night and kegs of 3.2 beer, would simply not be viable today—the needs of students are just not the same. Less inclined to stop by to just dance to a student’s playlist on the way back from the library, today’s students are much more committed to creative programming, so the ’Sco tries to evolve with its patrons. With each new cohort of students, each new generation, the ’Sco is reconstructed, and takes on a new meaning. For the most part, students today don’t have any sense of the groundbreaking history of the ’Sco, we don’t have pride in the legacy we’re contributing to, and in some ways, perhaps that’s a shame. This room, this ugly, magic room and all that it stands for and has stood for, exists largely in the memories of the individuals who’ve been here through the years. So while those memories are treasured by many, they often fade from common ’Sco knowledge once a couple of years pass, and are relegated to alumni get-togethers and unintentionally kept far from current students. But on the other hand, there’s something so wonderful about a place that exists only in memories, that is defined only by the people who frequent the room. “I enjoy my job here, I enjoy working with you all because you are fascinating,” said Shirley. “You are some of the most fascinating people on the planet.” Ultimately, it’s these fascinating people who write their own ’Sco histories. The room empties out at the end of the night and is swept and mopped and born anew, ready to take on a new meaning.

So what is the ’Sco, really? It’s a bar, it’s a music venue, it’s a dance hall, it’s a big empty room in the basement of Wilder. These things are all true. But more than any of that, I think that the ’Sco is a collection of stories—and over the past 40 years, there have been a lot of them. But as long as someone’s remembering that time in the mosh pit, that one time at Splitchers, that great show freshman year, that time their world turned upside down and everything felt right, or wrong, or something—the space is alive, and learning, and growing. The stories are in the air there—in the corners, at the bar, on the stage. Try to see them, next time. They fill the room. 

Categories
Temporal Reflections

A Good Night’s Sleep

by Kira Findling | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

There’s a disconnect with elder care in the United States. People are living longer, but nursing facilities aren’t catching up with the need for comfortable and engaging long-term care. My grandpa, Martin, moved into a rehab facility last summer following a series of intense surgeries and near-death experiences. Martin, who I call Papa, loves to nap. In my childhood, whenever I visited his house, I’d find him snoring on the couch, my grandma hitting his arm to wake him up. He seemed peaceful, drifting off in the middle of a conversation or television episode. At the rehab center, however, he struggled to sleep through the night, plagued by anxiety and loneliness. Along with the rest of my family, I tried to visit as often as I could, but found myself trapped in limbo, unsure what to do to help him in the face of a system beyond my control. Like Papa, many elderly people spend their days stuck in routines they didn’t choose, waiting for something to change, regardless of the good intentions of their family members. Among those who are receiving care in facilities, almost half struggle with depression, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some relatives of the elderly believe that nursing home care offers the best option, while others are determined to take care of people in their own homes. Home care typically involves the work of live-in caretakers, who relieve families of nursing duties and allow for a good night’s sleep. Yet while Medicaid can help pay for this service, the application process can be onerous and inaccessible, requiring many documents and extensive financial information. Limited by government policies and financial concerns, people around the country are forced to make decisions about elder care with very little room to consider individuals’ happiness and specific needs.

In the facility, Papa often gave up and retreated into himself. Sometimes we entered his room to find him in another world, eyes unfocused and voice quiet. When my grandma brought him his favorite ice cream, he shrugged. On those days, his passion and excitement seemed to have evaporated. While some of that came from his poor health, I’m sure that much of it was due to his environment. His rehab center was state-of-the-art, with rigorous physical therapy and a rotating entertainment schedule, but the basic setup of nursing home care promoted boredom and isolation. He didn’t talk much to the other residents, instead relying on my family to visit constantly, to the point that my grandma decided to hire a caretaker after many sleepless nights. Time after time, he’d yell, “Get me out of here,” and we’d sit uncomfortably, unable to give him what he wanted. The reason why the current system of elder care isn’t working for my grandpa and many others? It’s premised on routine and repetition.

A doctor from New York wants to change that. Dr. Bill Thomas has spent his life working to tear down the nursing home system as we know it. In the early 1990s, he spent hours observing patients in nursing homes—patients who, like Papa, sat alone and waiting for hours, only to be wheeled somewhere else to do it all over again. Dr. Thomas began to think of nursing homes like spaceships, devoid of any sense of life or nature. Interviewed on the podcast Reply All, he said, “If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity—crushing it.” Dr. Thomas’s first big idea was the Eden Alternative. He introduced animals to the nursing home: four dogs, eight cats, and four hundred birds. Within minutes, the old folks began to giggle and chatter. One elderly man who had been unable to speak for months verbally requested a bird. He transformed from someone locked inside himself to someone speaking animatedly with a parakeet. The death rate of the nursing home plummeted and its patients were using significantly less medication. The success of the Eden Alternative came down to its chaotic nature. The elders were now living like they did for much of their lives: with little knowledge of what exactly would happen next. But though Dr. Thomas traveled around the country promoting the Eden Alternative, the initiative’s effectiveness waned when animals were introduced in an orderly manner, and nursing homes once again lost any sense of unpredictability.

The Eden Alternative holds incredible possibility for improving the lives of elderly people like my grandpa. It made care facilities into dynamic spaces with surprises and reasons to get up in the morning. Why bother spending energy when you know you’re living in a fixed, unmalleable environment? The Eden Alternative’s conclusion is that people need unexpected things to happen in life, or they will give up and retreat inside themselves. No one wants to stare at the wall all day. People want to connect, to be together, to talk and debate, to laugh. Dr. Thomas believes that elders deserve more autonomy, and that we have the opportunity as a society to build an entirely new system of elder care.

Last summer, I was always only a thought away from crying, wishing I could leave my desk and drive to the rehab facility. Papa was always confused, spinning from recklessly hopeful to dismayed. He asked my grandma why he was eating lunch at midnight, when really it was noon. One day he got so frustrated that he told us that he could imagine why someone would want to commit suicide after being stuck in a bed with no one to talk to. His caretaker was there for hours during the day, but at night Papa was alone. He woke intermittently to watch infomercials on the TV mounted to the wall, the speaker soft next to his ear so it wouldn’t wake his roommate.

Some believe that no one needs to live in nursing homes because they could get that care at home for the same price or cheaper. On Reply All’s episode on elder care, Tammy Marshall, Chief Experience Officer of the New Jewish Home in New York, said, “There isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. […] All that we’re doing here can be done in your home.” Nursing homes are extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of hiring home care workers, who work long hours for low wages. Yet families often find themselves in a position where nursing homes seem to be the only option due to specific needs and the amount of energy that caretaking requires. In my papa’s case, he had to be in a rehab facility to access physical therapy. But even with “good” care—his daily physical therapy and opportunities for group activities—Papa felt aimless and missed us when we couldn’t be there. My grandma brought him home as soon as possible to end his feeling of isolation and the exhaustion of driving back and forth to the facility. A physical therapist came to the house a few times, but his treatment wasn’t as intense as it had been. The nursing home offered services that the house couldn’t, because of spatial limitations and availability of therapists. The situation left my family in a difficult position, having to choose between my grandpa’s happiness or physical health. Though Marshall is correct in saying that the services offered in a nursing facility can be replicated at home, doing so isn’t easy. It requires resources and emotional energy that many simply don’t have.

Print by Ian Ruppenthal

Caring for an elderly family member is a deeply intimate experience. Relationships change as power dynamics are flipped and decades-old dynamics disappear. Though caretaking can be a burden, it is a burden that many take on without thinking, out of love. My grandma’s life now revolves around taking care of Papa, but she can’t imagine it any other way. Like most people, she views her commitment to my grandpa as a promise to care for him towards the end of his life. She’ll be by his side. But this vow becomes an undue burden when she finds herself with very few options for elder care and when, despite her best efforts, Papa feels lonely and understimulated.

When I think about Papa’s experience in the rehab facility last summer and his continued support from live-in caretakers, I like to imagine a new world. I think of a system where Papa could decide what would make him feel healthy and supported. His dementia would prevent him from dealing with practical concerns, and we’d still have to remind him that he couldn’t drive or go to the bathroom alone, but he could tell us what he wanted and we would do our best to make that happen. So much of elder care is trying to figure out what’s best for your relative. Each day last summer, my grandma tried to make Papa happy while keeping him safe. But sometimes in the chaos of stress and decision-making, his emotional needs got lost. Papa was most at peace when we followed his lead and played along with the world he was living in, when we went along with his confused trains of thought rather than trying to correct them. For a moment, we would be on the same page, together in his world of endless daylight and imaginary orchestras and protein drinks for dinner, and he would smile.

When I imagine a better system of elder care, it’s based around community support and accessibility. Family members have a variety of affordable and supportive options for their relatives who need assistance. No one has to shoulder the responsibility of caretaking alone. I feel hopeful that, to some degree, that better system already exists. Over the summer, my extended family took turns visiting Papa and helping my grandma with logistics. These days, we all do what we can to make sure she is supported. Everyone—especially those who live close by—pitches in with food, advice, time, and words of support. But in my imagined system, it goes further. Caretaking is accessible and possible for all people, and valued as a job in and of itself. No one has to make decisions that leave their family members lonely and scared. There’s an institutional safety net for people who fall through the cracks. In my imagined system, Papa never stops caring. He’s present, with his family, and everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

One afternoon in July, after hours at the rehab facility, my family went back to my grandma’s house to go swimming. The evening flew by—pizza dinner, a call from Papa’s caretaker that she was leaving for the night. As I headed home, I realized that I had left my sunglasses at the facility. At 10:00 PM, I walked into the rehab center, greeted by the familiar sounds of wheelchairs in the halls and nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floors. Before I entered Papa’s room, I saw that he was pushing the call button again and again. The nurse bustled in and asked what he needed. Papa said, “How are you?” She smiled and adjusted his pillows. He had woken up and didn’t want to be alone. Their conversation was short; as they spoke, I snuck into the room, got my sunglasses, and left. I told myself that it would confuse him to see me there only for a moment, but really I wasn’t sure if I could handle the interaction. I knew it would wreck me to see him so helpless and alone at night. But as I left, I ran into a nurse I recognized. She smiled. “Saying goodnight to your grandpa?” When I shook my head, she gave me a long, appraising look. I poked my head into Papa’s room. He said a soft hello, sweet and tired. I told him that it was late—he had no idea what time of day it was—and that I had to go home, but that I’d be back soon. He nodded, and I kissed his forehead. Papa waved me goodbye all the way out the door. I walked out of the facility slowly, smiling at people in the rooms who were still awake. It still makes me cry to think of leaving him in that bed. That’s the reason I care so much about nursing homes and loneliness. I saw him ringing that call button again and again, and all I wanted to do was talk to him until he fell asleep, and sit by his bed until he woke up and we did it all over again.

Categories
Voices

Since March

by Emma June Marcus | Voices | Fall 2018

Art by Jacob Butcher

It made no sense that we had a pool in a place named after the Pacific. In school we were taught that our home was a rainforest, a rain-fed wet dream for evergreens and mud puddles. I was born beneath an overcast sky, I learned to find comfort in grey. Daniel, my big brother by eight years, was born Southern California. He was blonde and twisting out of our parents’ grasps as his limbs burned pink.

Our in-ground pool was a lake by any standard. The perpetual rainclouds bred water-bugs and walls covered in slime. I swam until my lips turned blue. Sometimes he would join me in the cold, mostly he would just watch. I’d pull myself from the foggy water, dripping and skinny. I’d make him laugh with my teeth chattering while he wrapped me in a towel that reached the ground. He could never stay in one place very long, busy like big brothers are, but I knew he wouldn’t leave until I got warm again.

I got so good at holding my breath, I could go to the end and back again without coming up once. When Daniel forgave the freezing water he could go twice as far, though. His lungs are bigger.

My father forbade me from jumping on trampolines throughout my childhood, saying that I would end up paralyzed in a hospital bed. So after school on Thursdays I would bike to the Robertsons’ house. They had a big one in their backyard and no rules. I loved myself floating, my clothes full of air. But I hated hitting the elastic black, it would shock me, twist my ankle and take my strength with it. A chemical imbalance, Mom said Daniel had, some days were very high, some days felt low. The day he locked all of the doors in our house and spoke through the screen door: I am going to do it. I’m going to end it.—that day was close to the bottom, his ankles must have broken, he hit the trampoline so hard.

This isn’t about me.

None of it is, really, is what I’m coming to understand.

This is about what violence follows someone being locked up. This is about isolation. This isn’t about me. This is about mobility, security, locks and traps. I have lied so frequently about my family that the formula of falsity reverberates through my skull and comforts me each time I recite it. I think it might be easier because it once was true, it once settled inside the narrative of myself I was trying to sculpt. It fit perfectly—I have two siblings. My brother lives in Portland, still, he is getting his degree from Portland Community College. He was an alcoholic, but he got sober about five years ago. He totally turned his life around. He works with at-risk youth in a public high school outside of the city. He shows them music, he taught them to garden. My brother and I have the same face. We did a face-swap once and I swear to god nothing changed. We joke about who is the more handsome sibling. We hit each other’s arms and chase each other through my parents’ house. All of that was completely true at one point.

I was twenty and drowning, but this isn’t about me. It was a wet spring, 2017, one of the greyest that Portland has seen in years. The trees held water like mouths full, gulping it down. Deep green leaves shook with droplets and bounced like conversations. The northwest was being pummeled with early March down-pours. I would receive calls from my mother in which I could hear her pacing in front of the living room window, holding herself in a tight hug, rubbing her upper arms nervously. The tapping of raindrops from the front yard would weave itself between her words, I knew the grey was beginning to drive her mad.

Portland is a waterlogged city, its winding streets glisten with miniature streams composed of rain. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I experienced an Autumn I could look upwards during without blinking rapidly, pinprick raindrops tickling my lashes. Oregon is a cloud-swirling rainforest, its days brew and simmer with the shaking of rain. 

I don’t let myself picture my brother’s smile. 

***

Daniel and I, we talked the most when we sat side by side, eyes straight ahead. My family loves the Portland Trail Blazers. Daniel would frequently surprise me with nosebleed seats to home games, inexpensive and impulsive. We’d sit at the top of the stadium, rows beneath us like scales. Amidst the screams and rounds of Let’s go defense, my big brother and I would talk about our parents, our changing city, our futures. He was planning on applying to a university somewhere that wasn’t Oregon when his girlfriend got pregnant. He confessed to me that he felt stuck in our waterlogged corner of the country, his sentiment cut short by an interception from the opposing team. Have you ever wondered—Daniel’s body shot out of his seat, electrified by the play below us. He then sat, bouncing his left leg rapidly, not facing me—have you ever wondered how different you’d be if you’d been born before we moved to Portland? My answer, “all the time,” was clouded over by the rush of people exiting during halftime, pushing towards bathrooms and food stands. There is something meditative about watching basketball. The methodical movement of it, the back and forth, the hush of a pass. Daniel and I would swing our heads in unison, clutching each other’s forearms in moments of tension, laughing hysterically when our team withstood persistent pressure. I felt glorious watching the games next to him. Daniel could recite a game of basketball like poetry. He knew each player, their history, their motivations. He could look at a court and decode it, observing the conflicts and flaying their complexities in front of me. Next to Daniel, I too could speak the game into emotional resonance. We could be poets together, and we would leave games in a flushed burst, lost among the crowds of people spreading from the stadium onto the damp Portland streets. 

***

My father describes the day after it happened in silhouettes. The large window at the front of my parents’ house hangs above a small flight of stairs. When visitors come and go, they appear in the window in motion exclusively, a flit of a human approaching their destination. My mother often positions her rocking chair to gaze out, onto the front lawn and the steep hill that is a highly trafficked route to the coffee shop a couple of doors down. My father describes the day after it happened through the frame of the window, while he and my mother were sitting in easy silence, sipping coffee at the dining room table. They will spend hours like that, surrounded by newspapers and coffee losing its steam.

My father loves to read obituaries. He finds it stunning, the details that people choose to include about someone who is now dead. Often, when I’m home, before “good morning,” my father will greet my gruff , overslept presence with an excerpt from a dead person’s life. “Listen to this,” he holds an open palm towards me while his eyes remain fixed on the page, “this woman taught preschool for three decades in California, and would get invited to her past students’ weddings. Isn’t that marvelous?” And through my sleep-fogged eyes I am usually able to make out a headline in bold Catherine Carter, Beloved Teacher, is Dead at 85. We relish in the romance of lives which now contain conclusions.

The day after it happened, my parents watched the lanky outline of my brother’s girlfriend ascend the front steps to their door. She knocked, something she had stopped doing months before, when she and Daniel moved in together. When their son was born. When time felt like it was passing comfortably, gaining momentum and taking moments to breathe in the pleasure. She knocked, and my father glanced over top of his paper, “Molly’s here,” which my mother responded to by setting down her coffee after blowing on it but before tasting it, and opened the front door. My father recounts this next part through the punctuated flow of it. Molly took one step inside the living room, her eyes fixed on the floor, and said, “you might want to sit down for this.” They sat on the couch in front of her and watched her pace, backlit by the window. My father lacks patience when information is withheld from him, especially when it dangles itself in the shape of a carrot, or in the shape of Molly, long brown hair swinging with each sharp turn in my parents’ living room. “Molly, what?” I’m sure he asked, although he leaves details like that out in an effort to emphasize the painful: she said it plainly. Daniel has been arrested. Daniel is in prison. To which my parents could collapse against, my parents whose only son was now behind bars, was now being held in a room alone. 

This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about prisons. This is about what happened to a family left behind.

I was many state lines away when it happened, finishing my midterms in the Midwest. I was cooking in co-ops with my friends and getting drunk on Wednesdays and my brother was in a cell, mentally ill and out of control. He had texted me just the day before, “you are the light of my life.” As the timestamp on that message approaches its second birthday, I am left wondering if he knew. If he was sending me a sort of farewell, if the lucid part of his mind was trying to comfort me. The days following his arrest I would hold lie in bed and hold his last voicemail to my ear, shaking as his voice coaxed me into a feverish sleep. I stopped looking in mirrors because all I saw in my eyes were his. Some of the only ways I know how to think about my brother are to imagine him dead. I imagine that I am capable of moving on, of it all getting easier to process.

The thing about grieving someone in prison is that the pain heightens with time. Reality stretches on, and instead of healing, all that awaits me in the depths of my subconscious are visions of my brother throwing his head back and laughing at something I said during dinner. I am forgetting what it felt like to talk to him. Our relationship has been stunted and shredded and bloodied. What you need to know is this: my brother’s brain does not regulate its chemicals like most peoples’. He did something violent and regrettable. And his days are forever sculpted by the biggest mistake he has ever made.

Photo by Bridget Conway

There are parts of your life that will not be affected by this, my parents kept telling me, as if the more they said it the truer it might become. My head pounded with their words for months. I walked to work as morning air wove itself between the strands of my throat like liquid. The sun began to rise and the grass became electric green, how fresh, how fantastic. The fourth floor of the Oregon Penitentiary Prison has green walls. Mint green walls and deep green doors and windowless rooms where the “ten most mentally unstable prisoners” are kept, according to a newspaper article I found online. I crossed the street and there was a stocky man with a sledgehammer, the cement spread open like eyelids.

When the day arrived that marked 365 days of my brother’s imprisonment, I was driving north toward Sedona, Arizona. Against the electric blue desert skies, Sedona’s famous red cliff s look like hungry flames. Three friends and I spent a week in and out of breathtaking canyons, and I began to imagine my brother locked in the chambers of my chest. I took him with me everywhere I went, I showed him the beautiful things—the air fluttering in through the car windows as we flew along I-10, the red rock crumbling beneath my feet as I leapt across a creek, my friends’ faces glowing around the gasps of the campfire.

But he added a lot of extra weight. As anyone who has ever gone backpacking knows, every addition to your pack grates on your bones by the end of each day. And a full-grown man? I could barely walk by the time we needed to set up camp at night.

Everywhere I move, I pull him with me and he remains stagnant. He remains in one place longer than anyone I know. I go to class and embrace my friends and scream when I’m scared. On a Tuesday last December, I climbed into a frost-bitten car with three of my friends and drove into Cleveland. We needed to get out of the same tiny town. My best friend stroked my hair as I led my skull rest against the cool glass of the window, watched the world whizz by, my eyes darting across the thin winter light glitter between empty branches. The sun was lowering itself, hissing its last breaths onto Ohio as we sped along. I have the power to escape whenever I want to. I feel the world piling itself on top of me and I run away, I am finding myself in the patterns of my movements. I am left with echoes of my brother, of the man he was. I am left with what I choose to remember.

His being in prison has designated him one pocket of my mind, I trap him between my everyday murmurings and let him rot there. If I open the door to where he lives, the smell is too overwhelming, I can’t see. So he remains there, and I am left in a roomful of people lowering their heads during a classroom discussion about prison. The State profits off of locking up crazy people, I remember saying, my mouth shaping letters that crumbled out of my lips and scattered on the desk in front of me. The professor nodded and gave me a reassuring smile, or so I assume, but I could not see her because of the fog starting from the corners of my eyesight and moving inwards. The classroom was all sheer white clouds but I continued speaking, fueled by people thinking I had no personal stake in the argument—if someone has done something terrible, isn’t it easy to blame a person who can’t defend themselves? And as the room shrivels beneath me, all I can see is my brother speaking to a person who no one else can see.

I put in headphones while I read the paper one morning and I unplug them after a minute and a half, throwing the earbuds across the table and covering my face with my hands. Andrew Bird lyrics chimed through my brain and as the words reverberated down my spine, I am surrounded by what it felt like to watch Daniel walk into a room. With his sweet-slow crooked smile, people hung onto his every word. I throw my headphones across the table and shudder, scribbling in the margins of my notebook that songwriters should stop using prisons as metaphors. “Prison or hell,” he wailed, “prison or hell prison or hell prison or hell”—It isn’t until about a week later that I look up the lyrics to the song. “Those that can’t quite function in society at large / They’re going to wake up on this morning and find that they’re in charge / But those that the world’s set up for, who are doing really quite well / They’re going to wake up in institutions / In prison or in hell / Prison or in hell.” 

Categories
Cultural Miasma

Camp Magic

by Hannah Tishkoff | Cultural Miasma | Fall 2018

Images by Laurel Moore

Huddled in the only dry patch of the shelter, every clap of thunder is met with a predictable round of squealing from my campers. The high pitch that emanates from their pre-pubescent vocal cords finds a way beyond the birch trees and dissipates into the vast emptiness of this Vermont night. I hold them—not maternally—but as one of their own. A dozen little arms wrapped around my shoulders, grabbing for the comfort of my hands, looking for solace in my eyes.

For the next four days my co-counselor and I are the sole guardians of six seventh-grade girls on a camping trip. The theme of our trip is outdoor living skills, which we know very little about. They quiz me on the “lightning position” which is supposed to keep you safe in a storm, and I fumble my words. When the storm subsides I try to build the campfire I know will aid in marshmallow roasting and the sharing of secrets, but I fail every time. Tending to the fire for too long, my face burning red, my eyes growing blood-shot, my campers tell me that I should take a break. I acquiesce, blaming the failed fire on the dampness from the storm.

The next night I achieve a small flame, but it goes out quickly. They have no idea what the fire means to me. They think I am somewhere between 25 and 45 years old, and I’ve just informed them that no, porn and blow jobs are not the same thing, but yes, there is some overlap. Their presence evokes a flood of my own memories from seventh grade, and I smile, grateful to realize the distance between then and now. At night, finally alone in my own tent, I write in my journal: overfl owing with love for my campers. so special to be privy to their emerging selves, a world few adults are ever granted access to… and having just come out the other side myself not too long ago, the arc of that is so beautiful. They’re about to know everything, but not yet. The convergence of our different levels of knowing… it reminds me of what is important and how I came to know that. Although I only have a handful more years of life than they do, I am their protector during this brief encounter with the wilderness. It is an almost laughable amount of responsibility, and they could not be more oblivious to my ineptitude.

The eight consecutive summers I spent at sleepaway camp comprise some of my most sacred childhood memories. Camp showed me how food grows from the ground, taught me self sufficiency through simple living, and gave me a world where I could discover myself far away from my parents. I believe there is something magical and almost supernaturally special about summer camp, but I was hesitant to cross the divide between camper and counselor. I feared that if I saw behind the curtain and learned how the magic trick was done, I wouldn’t believe in it anymore. When the time came for me to decide if I would become a counselor, it felt important for me to keep the memories of my own camp world separate, and so I chose not to return. Instead, I drove east to Plymouth, Vermont to begin my job at a summer camp called Farm & Wilderness.

The work that counselors performed to cultivate the salience of camp was invisible to me when I was a camper, but during the one month of training prior to the arrival of children, our goal of the summer was made clear: to create camp magic. Naming “camp magic” transformed what I had passively consumed as a kid into something I would have to manufacture as an adult. To me, camp magic encompasses the almost inarticulable experiences that make summer camp—for campers and counselors alike—feel totally exceptional and unique from the rest of the world. Every moment of camp is treated with such reverence, from morning sing at the start of each day to to the teary eyed affirmations of growth presented to each camper before they head home. The extraordinary experiences camp staff are required to provide are complicated, however, by being supposedly authentic yet totally obligatory. For all its virtues, camp is also a product paid for by parents with a certain set of expectations. As the same kids return year after year, staff must find ways to reinvigorate the magic of camp for returners while indoctrinating new campers to its strange culture. The work of the camp counselor is therefore a delicate balance between serving the spiritual needs of children and engaging in a willful performance to maintain the purposefully manufactured world of camp. Nonetheless, waking kids up to pumpkin pie in bed and allowing them to wrestle in pits of mud is priceless and powerfully influential.

To think about summer camp, I first have to think about the powerful fictions it is predicated upon, and how inextricable the origins of North American summer camps are from my own experiences. The traditional summer camps featured in movies like The Parent Trap or Wet Hot American Summer, were created by social reformers in the early 20th century as a nature themed response to rapid industrialization. The free and feral childhood of yore was thought to be under threat by the shift from a natural, agrarian living to a more mechanized, industrial way of life in the cities. Summer camps like Farm & Wilderness and the one I attended in California emerged in the 1930s to provide children with supposedly authentic encounters with pre-industrialized country living. While the intentions are earnest, they remain deeply rooted in distorted conceptions of wilderness and childhood—both strategic inventions created to assure a nostalgia for something lost while eliminating the possibility of ever restoring the real thing. The traditional folk crafts, cabin architecture, farm animals, and lack of technology that define camp culture are therefore conspicuously and intentionally anti-modern. Camp seeks to turn back the clocks of time, to return to a fantasy of free play in pastoral landscapes, unencumbered by machinery. (The motivation to provide this supposedly natural landscape is also mimicked in America’s creation of national parks to provide sites of consumable wilderness.) Farm & Wilderness’ historic appropriation of Native American culture, which renders the symbols of native people into mere signifiers of a bygone primitive past, also finds its origins in this context. Although F&W has adjusted over the years to changing times, echoes of this history are ever-present in camp ideology and culture.

The motto of Farm & Wilderness is “Work is Love Made Visible,” a quote from poet Khalil Gibran. Throughout the summer, when campers complained about washing dishes or cleaning their cabins, a stern look and recitation of this motto was a failsafe way to ensure work was being done with intention rather than resentment. Part of what I believe makes camp so meaningful for kids, including myself, is its emphasis on the moral lessons incurred through labor. The vast majority of F&W’s campers whose parents dish out a couple grand each summer for camp are financially privileged, and often hail from cities like New York and Boston. Although campers are hesitant at first, the communal dishwashing and the empowerment of chopping firewood imbibes them with a sense of purpose that is difficult to replicate elsewhere. The notion that the strenuous life is the path to a meaningful life reigns supreme. Yet camp can’t be too strenuous or children would complain to their parents, or not return. This is one of the central tensions of camp life; the survival skills are more symbolic than practical. Yet the symbolism of outdoorsy skills like fire building, wood working and backpacking have their own tangible weight in reality. For the contemporary camper, the meaning of “survival” becomes more about spiritual or moral survival against the backdrop of modernity than the logistics of making it through the winter. For all its comfort and convenience, modernity lacks in spiritual fulfillment, and summer camp was born to make up for this loss.

Throughout the summer I became increasingly aware of these tensions, and I am trying now to understand how summer camp’s romanticization of rural life remains both so restorative and unsettling for me. The project of Farm & Wilderness, and camp in general, involves intentionally distorting space and time in order to construct an alternative atmosphere of adolescent bliss. Although F&W is near a number of small towns, campers imagine themselves to be situated in a wide open pastoral playground, isolated from any form of civilization. Despite knowing this during the three months I spent working at camp, I felt that I too was living in a separate universe. Staff park their cars a mile up the road, rendering our nightly escape vehicles invisible. Taking a day off is coded as “going to the disco,” which younger campers are told is located through a trap door beneath the dock of the lake. Older kids perpetuate this myth, exaggerating the unlikely extravagences of the disco to the wide eyes of the nine-year-old campers. While kids exchange their iPhones for postcards and recorded music for acoustic sing alongs to the Indigo Girls, counselors secretly leave at night to blast pop music and sip drinks at the local bar. In these moments I felt the space between my childhood myths and the reality of my adulthood most intensely. As a camp counselor, I grappled with the actual loss of my childhood while participating in its imagined recovery. 

“Camp time,” a phrase thrown around during the summer, describes the sometimes refreshing, often disorienting disconnect between the temporality of camp and the rest of the world. Sometimes I’d wonder what what kind of national news would be big enough for me to have to tell the kids. Otherwise, we lived a life of feigned preindustrial simplicity, free of alarm clocks and recorded music. Ephemerality is the nature of camp, and it’s part of what makes it so magical. The whole operation has to be precise enough to pull off life changing experiences in a matter of weeks. During each three-week camp session, I watched children cherish their time with a unique intensity, fearing the end as soon as it had begun. Yet even returning campers from forty years past remarked on F&W’s timelessness, how everything was exactly as they remembered. Camp’s intensity is fueled by its simultaneous time sensitivity and timelessness. The days which became months unfurled almost secretly like the approach of spring, but they were some of the longest I had ever known. Like in any enclosed community, the regular dramas, disappointments, and achievements, any of which could happen in a matter of hours, felt monumental. A day that began at 7:30 AM could easily involve the unanticipated evacuation of an asthmatic camper from a backpacking trip, followed by an ocean-themed banquet for the youngest campers, accompanied by an original rewrite of the lyrics to “Under the Sea.”

The peculiarity of the camp experience resonates long after I left behind behind the mildewy cabins of Farm & Wilderness and readjusted to the comforts of indoor plumbing. What I had perceived to be an organic child-run sanctuary was in fact a highly mediated, studied performance. Yet the realization of this didn’t make it any less special. Adulthood is about letting go and taking hold at the same time; loving the magic trick in spite of knowing exactly how it’s done. The biggest myth of all is that magic and wonderment are novelties reserved for children, that we have to give all that up when we pass the age of camp. As a counselor my job was simply to help my campers realize how much they already knew, while allowing them to help me remember what I was beginning to forget. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated wilderness, just as there is no such thing as a free and feral childhood.

Sitting under the stars on the last night of our camping trip, my campers and I take a moment to lie in the damp grass and absorb the balmy air. The thunderstorm is long gone by now, but my campers still cling on to my arms. Now the object of my campers’ fear has become much more amorphous. What kind of world would we return to now that we had shared this experience? We couldn’t know—but we lay in the grass to reminisce about what we did know. We were there to count the seconds between us and the stars, between who we were and who we might become. This is the magic of camp: to feel that you are in a world that is your own.