Categories
Voices

Reflections

by Jamie Weil | Voices | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, In The Space Between

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


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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Voices

AIDEN

by Aniella Day | Voices | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

For you, as everything is now.


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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you for the email.”

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Field Notes

Reworking

by Ally Chase | Field Notes | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Temporal Reflections

The Only Symptom

by Corrie Purcell | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2020

Image by Nell Beck

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


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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
The Bawdy Politic

Me, The Mall, And I

by Fiona Warnick | The Bawdy Politic | Fall 2020

The joys and shame of loving the mall.


Rosalinabeth and I were at Victoria’s Secret, checking out. When it was my turn to approach the register, I held my breath. I had brought my own bag, and did not need the violently pink striped one they would try to foist upon me—but when was the right time to voice this? Too early was awkward, but so was too late. I had to say it before the cashier had already reached for the bag, or I would lose my nerve entirely. It would become too easy to surrender to the process—the pink tissue paper, the store-specific credit card. 

I managed to refuse the bag, and stuffed my new bra into the already-full canvas tote I’d brought from home.  

Rosalinabeth had three bags: her purse, the yellow one from Forever 21, and this latest one from Victoria’s Secret. (Rosalinabeth is not her real name; it’s what she always chose when we were six and playing fairy princesses.) “I love having multiple shopping bags,” she said suddenly, swinging them along beside her. 

I knew exactly what she meant: it was like being on a movie poster. A woman shopping, on TV, always has too many shopping bags. (See: Cher in Clueless, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman, Blair and Serena in Gossip Girl.) She is always on a spree, never a purposeful trip to buy the pants she needs for her chorus concert. 

As much as I loved these shows, the Woman Shopping was not a character I wanted to emulate. To care about shoes, in the movies, meant not caring about important things like grades and morals, and also not being taken seriously by the surrounding male characters. So I tried not to enjoy shopping. 

Sometimes, though, I would catch sight of myself in a store window: skinny jeans, new boots, purposeful stride. And that reflection—too brief and shadowy to show any flaws—made me happy, no matter how many times I had been told beauty didn’t matter. 

“Let’s go to Starbucks,” I said to Rosalinabeth. Damn the sea turtles, I wanted to drink something through a plastic straw. 

***

The mall has always made me feel this way: full of joy, and ashamed of it. Growing up, I felt that feminism had done a lot for the girls of my generation (or, at least, the upper-middle-class white girls of my generation). No one had a problem with us being good at math or baseball. My classmates and teachers took my opinions seriously. Yet I was afraid. I felt that if anyone should discover the joy a lacy bra inspired in me, or the hours I could spend in front of a dressing-room mirror, everything would fall apart. 

I didn’t have any clear evidence to support this fear. The threat of being exposed as a Girl Who Likes Shopping was amorphous, collected from the edges of everyday life. I extrapolated from, for instance, the way my father described my third grade teacher: “She’s great, the kids love her, but she always wears this bright blue eyeshadow.” He said it as if the makeup were a point against her. I hadn’t noticed that my teacher wore eye shadow until then. It was just part of her face.

When I went to Rosalinabeth’s house in early elementary school, we would sometimes paint our nails. She had so many colors, and also the sparkly stuff you could layer on top of other colors to feel extra fancy. 

But I had another friend—we’ll call her Jo. Jo never wore dresses and never wore shoes and never brushed her hair. She climbed trees and hunted frogs and was generally the coolest person I had ever met. If I was going to her house, I made sure to take off my nail polish first. 

Cool girls did not like girly things. Nail polish was not compatible with the Powerful Female Character archetype. 

I knew our society’s beauty standards are unrealistic, manufactured by corporations to keep women oppressed and spending money. My inner desire to be thin and blond—to fit that image of the woman laden with shopping bags—became a symptom of poor moral fortitude. The advertisers had gotten to me.

In my seventh-grade French class, we learned the verb ‘aimer’: to like. The teacher gave us a list of activities, and we had to write sentences explaining if we liked them or not.

I wrote: “J’aime lire. J’aime nager. J’aime faire du vélo.” I like reading. I like shopping. I like bicycling. 

I wrote: “Je n’aime pas aller au centre commercial.” I do not like going to the mall.

***

Shopping didn’t always exist as a recreational activity. For most of European history, only the aristocracy had more than one or two sets of clothing. Everything had to be done by hand, so a new dress was both extremely time consuming and extremely expensive. In this era, cities were masculine spaces, meant for politics and business. Respectable women stayed at home. The only women on the streets were prostitutes, objects for male consumption. 

Then came the industrial revolution. The middle class expanded, goods were produced at lower costs, and shopping became a viable activity for a much larger portion of the population. Suddenly, women had a reason to roam the city.

In London, they installed raised sidewalks and street- lamps. The sidewalks were meant to keep women’s shoes and long skirts out of the mud, and the streetlamps allowed them to keep shopping even as the sun set. The goal was to keep women in the stores as long as possible, so they would spend the maximum amount of money. It was manipulative capitalism, yet it was also the first instance of women’s needs and desires having an impact on the architecture of the city. 

Department stores went even further, offering safety, tearooms, and public lavatories to the female shopper. Advertisers had to address women specifically, and though their tactics were certainly rooted in deeply sexist assumptions, it was still one of the first times that men had to think deeply about what women might want. 

This, perhaps, is what I did not understand growing up: a woman shopping is a woman with purchasing power, and a woman with any sort of power is basically an existential threat to the patriarchy—ergo, why society must ridicule her. 

We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting‌,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us.

The advent of shopping-as-recreation meant that women could make decisions about fashion and decor, but only if everyone understood that these decisions were not important. And if a woman came to care deeply about these choices—the only ones she was allowed to make for herself—she could easily be laughed off as frivolous. 

The mall did for Rosalinabeth and me what the department store did for 19th-century women. It was the first place our parents said, “Here is some money, be free, meet us back at Macy’s at two o’clock.” The posters in the store windows may have given us unrealistic beauty standards, but they were aimed at us—teenage girls—specifically. 

We went to the mall to find out what we liked. To say, “Oh my God that bikini is so ugly,” which really meant, “I am becoming a person who is confident in their own tastes and opinions.” We proclaimed things “cute” and “revolting,” not because we really cared, but because it was fun to loudly pass judgement on the world around us. At the mall, we could be the experts. 

This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it. 

This isn’t to say our shopping trips were particularly existential. We rode the escalators and ate soft pretzels and talked about life. It was just something we enjoyed, like ice cream, or dancing, or going to the beach. It only felt different because I was ashamed of it. 

***

Malls are dying. Online shopping is pushing them ever closer to obsolescence. Throughout high school, Rosalinabeth and I watched the stores trickle out. We said goodbye to the Aeropostale; we said goodbye to the Wet Seal; we watched the Forever 21 move from a nine-room maze with two escalators and its own entrance to a small retail space next to Target.

Recently, I heard a journalist on TV say the pandemic is accelerating the demise of the American shopping mall, and I can’t say I’m mad about it. We could do with fewer sprawling parking lots, fewer plastic bags, and fewer stick-thin mannequins. 

A shopping mall, to me, feels morally similar to a zoo. The animals are given food, safety, and expert veterinary care. They are celebrated—but they are also caged. And at the end of the day, the people who erected those cages are trying to make money.

***

Right now, I am stuck at home. I have not been to a mall in over a year. My pants are all too big for me (I’ve lost weight in quarantine—part of me is happy about this, part of me is ashamed of that happiness, rooted as it is in unrealistic beauty standards) but I haven’t bought new ones because fitting rooms are closed. 

Everyone is talking about the first thing they’ll do when this is all over. They’ll hug their grandparents. They’ll go to the movies. They’ll get absurdly drunk with all their friends. 

I might go to the mall, if it is still around. I will buy a strangely fruity iced tea from Starbucks, and be frustrated when the cardboard straw gets too soggy to help scoop up the ice cubes from the bottom. I will try on some pants. I will ride anescalator. I will feel, somehow, like myself.  

Categories
Summer Reading

Quarantine Companions

by Sam Schuman | Summer Reading | Web Exclusive

In isolation, pets, like books, can be a saving grace—just ask Virginia Woolf.


Coronavirus hasn’t been easy on anybody, although its effects are, of course, asymmetrically felt. But Max doesn’t seem to be bothered by the pandemic one bit. If anything, he’s got it better now than ever: the whole family (stuck) at home, occasionally desperate for a break from one another and always willing to confide in him, the only member of the household who will never judge or give an undesirable reply. This is because Max can’t speak—he’s our nine-year-old silver tiger tabby cat. Since my brother and I left home for college, he’s also become my parents’ de facto third child. 

In addition to his obvious verbal limitation, Max, with his namesake silver fur, inquisitive seafoam eyes, and ears like triangular radar dishes, has a physical one, too: he’s only got three legs, the result of an accident when he was just months old, before we adopted him. (I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to make “we got hungry” the go-to family retort when visitors ask about him.) He’s not bothered by his missing hind leg, as far as I can tell. To the contrary, he enjoys every creature comfort of the suburban housecat life: hopping onto beds, chairs, couches, tables, and laptops to nap as desired, mewling incessantly should he find something disagreeable with his Fancy Feast dinner, stalking small game in our yard.

My relationship with Max hasn’t changed at all since the pandemic. It’s the same routine, day in and day out, of daring escapes from our front door and bait-and-switch playfulness that ends, more often than not, with claws out and skin broken. While I watch the news with my parents, Max studiously cleans himself next to us, totally unaware of rising Covid death tolls, horrifying police violence, and increasingly common climate disasters. He’s something of an anchor in the house, a living thing who demands care and attention, and provides some of his own in return, without any concern for the mounting human exigencies that 2020 seems hell-bent on delivering.

***

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a prolific Victorian poet who rivaled Tennyson for the title of U.K. Poet Laureate after Wordsworth’s death—far from a trivial figure in English letters. But, I should admit here, I had never heard of her until last month, when, finally having some downtime, I read Virginia Woolf’s Flush: A Biography. Billed by my slim, black Penguin Classics edition as a “playful, witty biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pet spaniel,” the 100-pages-and-change novella is a fascinating cross-genre work. Woolf constructs an imaginative piece of nominal nonfiction narrated by Barrett Browning’s eponymous dog, Flush, out of the scant documentary evidence of his life found in the 19th-century writer’s corpus. Her poems and letters serve as literary clues, points of creative departure like, “A head as hairy as Faunus, thrust its way / Right sudden against my face,—two golden-clear / Great eyes astonished mine,—a dropping ear / Did flap me on either cheek to dry the spray!” Flush was Woolf’s best-selling book to date when it was published in 1933, but it’s among her most neglected today.

I was initially more interested in Woolf’s presentation of the dog than in her treatment of its owner. The back cover seemed to encourage such a focus, proclaiming that the text “asks what it is to be a dog, and a human.” My myopic entry point led me far astray of most critical interpretations of Flush, which take the work as a feminist allegory, a modernist critique of London, or an exploration of class conflict. Instead, what gripped me, reading Flush in this moment, were the descriptions of the spaniel’s life with Ms. Barrett, a sickly woman who spends her days almost entirely confined to a posh room in her family home on London’s Wimpole Street, simulating a (highly privileged) sort of quarantine. While Ms. Barrett spends her days recumbent or hunched over writing, Flush sleeps at her feet. It’s a study in forced, if not reluctant, intimacy. 

***

Flush is a priceless gift to Ms. Barrett from her poor, maternalistic friend and fellow writer, Mary Russell Mitford. Raised in a working-class cottage since birth, young Flush is accustomed to romping Pan-like through wild English fields, not to Ms. Barrett’s dimly lit, aristocratic chamber, with its large looking glass, multiple marble busts, and elaborate furniture. His initial response to the room, Woolf postulates, is that of “a scholar who has descended step by step into a mausoleum and there finds himself in a crypt, crusted with fungus, slimy with mould, exuding sour smells of decay and antiquity.” But Flush is not a scholar; he is a spaniel, and a well-bred and sensitive one at that. He quickly develops a curious relationship with Ms. Barrett. Within moments of their meeting, Woolf tells us, “There was a likeness between them. As they gazed at each other each felt: Here am I—and then each felt: But how different!”

Trapped in her room, where she compares herself to a caged bird, Ms. Barrett writes frequently. “There she would lie hour after hour passing her hand over a white page with a black stick; and her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why?” Flush wonders. This misunderstanding, far from creating a gulf between the two recluses, leads to “a bond, an uncomfortable yet thrilling tightness.” Without words to get in the way, they form a “peculiar intimacy” immune to any sort of misinterpretation, doublespeak, or half-truth. They can do nothing except understand each other perfectly.

As 1842 slips into 1843, then 1844, then 1845, writing and Flush, Flush and writing, remain Ms. Barrett’s personal world. There’s a certain unity achieved. A pet, after all, can’t talk back any more than a piece of stationary can. Can’t edit, can’t rebut, can’t compliment, can’t question, can’t crack a joke. But pets aren’t stationary. They can console and comfort and play and offer a physical warmth that pen and paper will never match. In that quiet, cloistered room on Wimpole Street, desk and dog become two sides of the same coin, fulfilling, respectively, all the needs that words can, and all those that they cannot.

***

Ms. Barrett’s poetry eventually attracts the attention of Robert Browning, another London poet, and the two strike up a written correspondence. Browning soon begins to call on Ms. Barrett in person, and her relationship with Flush is forever changed as she slowly comes out of her shell, supplementing their bond with a new kind of thrilling affection. But her dedication to Flush, and his to her, is apparent throughout the human courtship. When local petty criminals kidnap Flush, Ms. Barrett disobeys Mr. Browning and her family and takes an unprecedented risk by traveling to the thieves’ dilapidated house in rough-and-tumble Shoreditch to personally demand the dog’s safe return. Once Flush has at last arrived back at Wimpole Street, Woolf relates, he “read her feelings more clearly than ever before. They had been parted; now they were together. Indeed they had never been so much akin.” 

Ms. Barrett and Mr. Browning elope and move to Italy, where “just as Mrs. Browning was exploring her new freedom and delighting in the discoveries she made, so Flush too was making his discoveries and exploring his freedom.” Both woman and canine find new sources of excitement and fulfillment, and their relationship becomes “far less emotional now than in the old days; she no longer needed his red fur and his bright eyes to give her what her own experience lacked.” Flush, for his part, is now his own master. He “goes out by himself, and stays hours together,” Woolf quotes from Mrs. Browning’s letters. Yet, through all this, we are assured, “the tie which bound them together was undeniably still binding.” When it comes time for Flush to die, he is reposed in a Florentine marketplace. Seized by some unspeakable, but perhaps entirely knowable, urge, he wakes with a start, makes a beeline for Mrs. Browning’s home, and dies in her arms. Woolf’s description of the mortal moment is matter-of-fact: “He had been alive; he was now dead.” But this near-monosyllabic narration isn’t detachment; it’s earned brevity in a relationship that was never verbal in the first place.

Such getaways, where separation may make the heart grow fonder, are out of the question at present. Like Ms. Barrett, we’re pretty much stuck in our rooms, hemmed in by distractions digital and print, and, if we’re lucky, a furry companion or two. Neither books nor pets care much for our personal affairs. Their indifference lends them stability. The world turns, but text on the page doesn’t rearrange itself. Crises unfold, but Max still hops around on his three legs, never seeming any the worse for wear as he begs each morning to be let outside to sunbathe on our front porch and terrorize any birds foolish enough to venture into our front yard. Yet neither relationship is entirely one-sided. Books yield new meanings as we read and reread them, finding ourselves “seen” in entirely new ways. And pets, living things that they are, often seem to know when we need them the most. 

This is, perhaps, their primary dissimilarity: books, for all of their interactivity, are static. The best ones almost always outlive their authors. The average housecat, on the other hand, lives no more than two decades. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry is still read today. Flush, Woolf reports in an endnote, has been buried in the vaults of a 15th-century patrician house in Italy for over a century. Ephemerality makes all the difference. My copy of Flush, although it is mine, is ultimately a monolith. But Max and I, we’re in this together.

Sam Schuman is a fourth-year College student and Editor-in-Chief of Wilder Voice.

Categories
Voices

In My Own Skin

by Miranda Purcell | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Katarina Mazur

I first became aware of my body in a middle school biology class. I wore a skirt and stood at a lab table. I remember hearing, and then seeing, a pencil roll towards me and land at my feet. A male classmate crept over on all fours and the moment he stopped by my shoes I realized he was attempting to look up my skirt. I kicked the pencil away, my face burning. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Shame filled me for days. I didn’t want my body to be looked at. Especially not in that way. I hadn’t even kissed a boy yet. I didn’t want one to look at my underwear. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even sure if he had been trying to look up my skirt. What if it really was an accident? What if I had just assumed that he was looking up my skirt? Did that make me a pervert? Should I not have worn a skirt? I decided that the answer to all these questions was “yes” and wore pants for the rest of the year.

To keep my mind off my 14-year-old body being viewed as a sexual object, I threw myself further into track and field, where it was viewed as a machine. What was once something I did after school to kill time before my mom picked me up after getting off work soon became my raison d’être. I had a close group of friends on the team. We would run laps around the middle school field in a tight pack. Occasionally we would go across the street to the high school track. We watched the varsity girls run relays and sprints and hurdles and were reminded that we were about to join a nationally ranked program, and that training hard was the only way to succeed. The front runners on my team were allowed to join varsity, eighth-graders competing against seniors in high school. When we saw them run with the older girls, we were constantly reminded of the rewards of strength, hard work, and dedication.

These values stayed with me when I made the varsity team as a freshman. We were expected to be at practice six days a week. If we missed more than three days, we were off varsity. My training as a sprinter consisted of a series of workouts, often drawn up by the sprinting coach, Schultz, and explained to us while we stretched. Stretching took at least 20 minutes. I learned to isolate my muscles, and I knew exactly how I needed to stretch each one of them to ensure that I had full range of motion.

Then the workout would begin. Sometimes we would do 10 200-meter repeats. Sometimes we would do extended fartleks, running the straightaway of the track and jogging the turn for two miles. Sometimes we would do a specialized practice to focus on starts. We had weight room sessions after practice, lifting to increase our arm strength. There was one drill where we held a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and pumped our arms for 30 seconds to strengthen our biceps and get us used to moving our arms faster. We would finish up every day with a core routine, six minutes of nonstop ab workouts that brought me to tears the first time I did them. But soon, they became second nature as we all crunched in unison.

I learned to relish the burn that I got from workouts. Sometimes, when our head coach, Levy, oversaw our practice, he would yell out how many times we would repeat a sprint. “Purcell, you can do five or six. Up to you.” I would always do the extra one, desperate to prove myself. As we ran, he shouted out the seconds going by so we would know exactly how slow we were going. “25, 26, 27, 28, 29… ”

Racing was the time to prove myself. All the work I put in, 10 months every year for five years was tested by the 30 or so seconds I was out on the track. Waiting for races to start, I would stand in a group of girls and wait for races to be called, clenching sweaty palms, steadying garbled breath. My bladder would press on my tight, high-cut spandex bottoms as the familiar nervous pee sensation grew. The rubber scent of the track was salty and dense. I would jump a few times, thighs to chest, and shake my legs out, feeling every muscle in my body move in the exact way I wanted it to. The official would blow a whistle. “On your mark!”

While a few races stick in my mind, there are many I do not remember. My breath and the blood pumping in my veins would overtake me and I usually lost my vision to black and white blurs towards the end of a race. Sometimes I would fall over after crossing the finish line. Once, I threw my body across to win. My right side was cut and rubber-burned for a week.

As I slowed down from a race, first to a jog, and then a walk, my vision would come back. I would look up at the board to check the times. Part of me would be happy for winning. The other part of me would be upset with myself for not having broken a personal record. I would consider what I did wrong. Maybe my start was off. Maybe I stopped driving too soon. I would turn around and see Levy, writing on his clipboard, not looking towards me. “Time?” he’d ask. “27.9,” I’d say. He’d wait a while before responding, and I’d hover uncomfortably next to him. “K,” he’d reply, and would turn away from me. I’d be hit with a feeling of failure and step off the track, cursing myself.

I quit track in the spring of my junior year of high school. The tendonitis that began in my knees in eighth grade had spread to my hips. Every time I walked my body cracked. If I took a wrong step, pain would shoot up my sides. My running wasn’t where it had been two years ago. I spent nights wondering if I peaked at age 15. When I went to my coach to hand in my uniform, he asked if I was quitting because I was having problems at home. I said that I wasn’t, opened the door of the gym, and left. 

I barely ran my senior year of high school, choosing instead to focus on school and music and my friends. I noticed a change in my body quickly—because I wasn’t running six days a week and working out, my muscles lost their definition. My thighs went from defined to fleshy. My bras stopped fitting as I re-went through puberty, which was stunted due to intense exercise. I became curvy. Part of me welcomed this change into a womanhood that I thought would never come. The other part of me was embarrassed by the size of me. I began wearing baggier clothing that would hide my boobs so I wouldn’t get looked at in the street. I hated how my thighs looked when I sat down, stretching across the entire seat of the chair. My arms became weaker and flabbier as fat collected. I couldn’t fit into most of the clothes I owned and had to buy new ones. I was uncomfortable in this new body that wasn’t toned or strong. 

During my freshman year of college, exercise took a backseat. There were friends to make and groups to audition for and parties to go to. I chose to restrict what I ate rather than exercise. When I ran for North Shore, we were given loose meal plans that ensured that we would be eating for performance. We ate around 3,000 calories every day to help us build and maintain muscle. At college, with no muscle to build, I ate salads, french fries and ice cream almost every day. I wanted my Stevie selections to match those of my best friends, two five-foot, conventionally skinny girls who fit into every item of clothing they tried on. For spring break freshman year, the three of us went to California. While we were in Los Angeles, we shopped a lot, looking for fun vintage clothing. I remember tears rolling silently down my face as I struggled to put on yet another pair of jeans that didn’t fit me, overhearing them exclaim how good the other looked. After a few days, I decided to stop trying on pants and instead watch them and give feedback. I wanted to be like that, and so the less I exercised, the less I ate. I felt worse and worse, and wasn’t even losing weight.

I remembered cases of exhaustion on my team. One of my teammates was iron-deficient. Another had diabetes. I remembered watching my teammates faint in front of me and Levy running towards them, yelling, “Has she eaten in the last two hours?” Even though I scared myself into eating more, I started feeling better. I went on runs again. I tried to ignore the nagging voice in my head that told me to go faster. 

Diet culture has not been particularly rampant on campus during my time here. Diets are frowned upon, met with protestations like, “Diets are so bad for your body!” and “You have a fine body, why would you ever want to lose weight?” and “Love yourself!” If you wanted to diet you were a Bad Feminist and a Bad Woman. Changing your body meant that you didn’t love your body, and not loving your body was Bad. I was tormented by the angel and devil on each shoulder as I scrolled through Instagram and saw my high school classmates at bathing-suit institutions—schools in Florida where the most popular major seemed to be going to the pool. I would end up in a rabbit hole of model-girls who were my age or younger so frequently that I had to unfollow them all. 

Instead of diet culture, Oberlin students participate in busy culture: two people coming out of the library comparing how busy they are and how little they’ve eaten because they have no time for food. “I totally skipped lunch today. I was sooo busy.” My stomach rumbles just listening . It’s cool to miss meals because you’re “busy.” Yet, if I call it the “homework diet,” people get mad at me. So, I learned to shut up and continue putting unholy bites of my lunch into my mouth. 

College hookup culture made me reconsider my body. Long gone was the machine it used to be. I had grabbable hips and often had to force unwanted hands off them. Even though I had a conventionally “desirable” body type, I hated people acknowledging my figure. People I slept with would say, “you have such a nice body.” The eighth-grade science class flashed across my mind. I would respond, “stop talking.” 

I don’t miss the injuries or my demanding and impossible coach, but I do miss running competitively. Training gave me a sense of control. It was in those moments on the track where I knew my body most intimately, where I understood every muscle and its function, where I knew that I was strong and capable. I’m trying to get back to that feeling. I was home recently and decided to go to the track for a run. I wanted to get a few laps in, nothing fast, just feel the bounce of the rubber against the soles of my Asics. As I walked through the metal turnstile, I drew in the atmosphere of the complex. When we ran we were on exhibition. Having a body, I think, is being a constant, living exhibit. I’m still negotiating the terms of that exhibit. I stretch a bit, and I feel the familiar burn in my calves, the one that lets me know that in this moment, I’m in control. It feels safe. I step onto the track. Right now, the sun is setting, the best time to run. The air is cool. The track feels soft, and warm, and resilient. 

Categories
Voices

Artifacts

by Ben Richman | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Katarina Mazur

I looked through my uncle Burt’s binders and plastic bags filled with stamps. They were scattered haphazardly in boxes in the corner of his soon-to-be empty apartment. He had died here only a few weeks earlier, entombed by beautiful hardcover books about art and history, commemorative plates and china, and hokey tchotchkes from around the world. After his leg amputation he became disinterested in his own health. It was a background responsibility that ranked far below collecting memorabilia and purchasing books on the internet, which he squeezed into the small apartment where he lived alone. 

Unobstructed sunlight pressed through the blinds, adding stripes of shadow and light to the brown boxes marked for storage. The tall bookshelf in the living room, which reached up to the ceiling, was now almost completely bare. There was an overwhelming sense that my family was intruding in a space that wasn’t ours. I stayed focused on the stamps as my uncle’s siblings rummaged through boxes in his closet, deciding what to keep and what to sell. 

Hundreds of imposing red Queen Elizabeths, drawn with her nose upturned, lay next to Japanese cranes printed in baby blue ink. There were commemorative stamps honoring the “Legends of the West,” with paintings of scruffy men in brown cowboy hats who probably killed buffalo for fun and died of tuberculosis. These rugged men, packed in their plastic bag home, rubbed shoulders with technicolor postage of James Dean staring nonchalantly ahead with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and Richard Nixon shaking hands with an aged Elvis Presley, surrounded by American flags and eagles. 

“I can take these,” I said quietly. I was 14 and could care less about stamp collecting, yet they felt important to preserve. I remember my uncle’s focus as he delicately cut out each individual stamp and glued it in its appropriate spot in his binders. That same stern face, focused on properly preserving his collection, could also stretch to fit goofy smiles and contort to punctuate absurd accents. He would try to get me interested in stamps that most people wouldn’t look twice at as they pressed them onto envelopes stuffed with letters to distant lovers, old friends, and maybe a pen pal or two. To most people, these intricate stamps disappeared into the gray background of their lives. 

It was during his deep immersion in the world of postage that the first warning signs began. It started as a pain in his calf that soon spread up to his thighs, and eventually prevented him from walking. He ignored the physical signs of calamity, not wanting to deal with the growing pain, allowing it to become the gray background of his own life. He was indignant at his siblings’ insistence that he go to a doctor, or even get health insurance. My family’s nagging only pushed him farther into apathy, along with my own whiny eight-year-old voice, which pestered him to stop smoking outside my family’s Passover Seder. He would always brush me off, saying something along the lines of “mind your own business.” 

Then, all of a sudden, it was too late. After he died, I sifted through the hundreds of stamps, with beautiful prints of colorful plants and birds, as well as cultural icons, glistening in glossy ink. They still seemed proud and dignified, but there was a cold loneliness hidden within them. I made sure to pay attention to the details in each one. The stamps demanded attention, a demand that was ignored by most, but not him. 

***

A stoic Lenin reclined in an armchair with an open book in his lap as he looked down at us from the top of Burt’s bookcase. His authoritative glare seemed to follow my sister and me as we decided what to take from the souvenirs, which ranged from a Russian doll of communist leaders to British tea cups and kitschy snow globes. He originally had plans to travel Europe after he graduated college, but canceled those plans when his father got sick. Eventually he got a job with the Virginia Food Stamp program in order to be close to his parents, and stayed in Virginia for most of his life. He was sent to Russia in 2002, ten years before he died. It was there that he gained a fascination for Russian culture, which was reflected through the stacks of books on Russian history and the many Soviet knick-knacks, which filled bookshelves and end tables. To Burt, there was no such thing as dipping his toe into a subject. If something sparked his interest, it became his life’s devotion. 

“It was a CIA- and State Department-run program to help the post-Soviet Russian government create a food stamp system so that people wouldn’t starve to death,” my dad said on the phone. He punctuated this with his signature nervous laugh, which was always reserved for awkward silences. Burt spent most of his time traveling to Russia for business and stayed in his sister Phyllis’ basement over the summer. It was those summers where our stories overlapped. 

I also often spent my summers at my aunt Phyllis’s house. I was too scared to go to sleep away camp so my parents would send me away to various family member’s homes just to get me out of the house. Phyllis’ gaudy “McMansion” always smelled like cleaning supplies, pastrami sandwiches, and noodle kugel. There were many activities at her makeshift camp: playing with my cousins’ dog Colby, (whose uncontrollable slobber would soak the shirt of anyone he came in contact with,) swimming in the pool in her backyard, and, my favorite, joking around with my uncle Burt. With him I had the unique opportunity to spend time with someone who didn’t talk down to me. In between flinging me into the pool and making jokes about my aunts’ oversized handbag and large pink hair curlers, he would give me small insights into his mysterious world. I remember him towering over me as I sat restlessly on the floor by his legs. 

Chto ty khochesh’ delat’?” He said in Russian. He sat across from me in his sister’s living room. The room was ornately decorated with her own collection of items. Clown figurines were placed carefully on shelves next to colorful 1920s-style Barnum and Bailey posters with elephants and acrobats. My aunt Phyllis cherished these items, though they often scared my sister, who feared clowns. 

“It means what do you want to do?” 

I repeated it slowly “Shto-tee hoe-chesh di-el-et.” 

Net.” 

“Ni-et.” 

“That means no.” 

Suka.” 

“Su-ka.” 

“That’s a bad word you call someone if you’re angry.” 

“What does it mean?” I asked with 10-year-old amazement. 

“I can’t tell you.” 

“Please tell me.” 

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.” He changed the subject by making up a song about all the things in my aunt’s purse, which included spilled mayo and a swarm of ants. 

He continued moving back and forth between my aunt’s house and Moscow for five years before his leg pain got more severe. His narrowing arteries were left untreated, causing the infection to spread. They waited to treat him because he didn’t have health insurance, pushing him aside once he finally made it to the hospital. The only option left was amputation.

“Can you give me a hand?” He paused for a moment as he rolled through his sister’s kitchen in his wheelchair. It had only been a few months since he left the hospital and he still sometimes felt phantom pains in the space where his leg used to be. “Actually, I could really use a leg.” He said with a straight face. I laughed uncomfortably even though I felt like I shouldn’t. He was not averse to jokes that made everyone uncomfortable. Phyllis laughed loudly, used to his dark humor by now. She always laughed at his jokes. He used to say that she escaped from the “asylum for the easily amused.” 

I was going through my awkward preteen phase and felt tense every time I had to hold a conversation with him. His jokes seemed less funny then, and I prefered to do teenage things like listen to music on my iPod and text my friends as an excuse to not engage in the agony of social interaction. I should spend more time with uncle Burt, I remember thinking as we drove out of Baltimore after visiting his new apartment for the first time. Next time I see him it will be different. I didn’t want it to be awkward. I could sense that he was disappearing into the background of our lives. Despite this, I kept hoping that things would change, that our relationship would grow. But I never got the chance. 

***

It was my older sister who found them, tucked away in his bedroom. I never saw them, but heard about them second hand. They were classy photos, in black and white, of naked men in cowboy hats, boots, and nothing else. They draped their muscular bodies across each other in artful poses. 

“That doesn’t necessarily mean he was gay,” Phyllis said, trembling slightly. “If he was, he would have told me.” Tears began to collect in her eyes. Her metal bracelets clattered as she wiped the moisture away. She usually had a strong, put-together demeanor that never slipped. She always knew what was right and wasn’t afraid to disagree with colleagues, doctors, or experts of any sort. I had never heard her voice tremble before. 

“Would Grandma have been mad if uncle Burt came out to her?” I asked my dad, six years after they had both passed away. I had always assumed that it was because of the shame that my grandma might have placed on him that he never came out. From my perspective she was a woman of traditional values. She was a Hebrew teacher for most of her life and was very active in her synagogue. My dad was silent for a moment as we sat together at a midtown restaurant. 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think she would have been okay with it.” 

This was not the answer I expected. I wanted a concrete reason he had kept this hidden his whole life. He never married, never had kids. Why did he never tell my aunt or my dad? They both would have been open and accepting. Why did he live his whole life alone? There had to be a reason. There had to be someone to blame. It was only two years after I had come out to my mom as she helped me move into my freshman dorm. It had taken months for me to muster the courage, but afterward, I regretted not doing it sooner. It’s possible that maybe he could never even admit it to himself. Maybe his internalized shame was so deep that it lasted his whole life. 

“He ran away from school and hitchhiked to New York,” my dad said, interrupting my train of thought. I now imagined him, young and scared, traveling to a new city. What was his life like? Was he happy there? Was he alone there, too? 

He left school without telling anyone. I imagined my grandma’s face as she paced in her small duplex, phone pressed against her ear, pushing up her cat-eyed glasses as anger and fear began to rise from somewhere in her stomach. I could see my dad as a young teenager, with his curly brown hair, which would eventually spread out into a Jew ’fro. I imagined him playing football with the neighborhood boys, oblivious to what was going on until he entered the house and felt the stress emanating from Grandma. 

The waiter brought us our food and the check. My dad’s round face and graying short hairs were beginning to look strikingly similar to Burt’s. 

“Eventually, he got a job and an apartment for himself. I went up to visit him a few times. He really didn’t have any money then. He would steal silverware and condiments from the diner down the street. Yet he still saved up enough money to take me to a Broadway play while I was visiting.” 

My dad smirked as he told me this anecdote. He had always loved musical theater and would sing show tunes with me and my sister when we were younger, but it was his older brother Burt who originally showed him Broadway. 

“He used to say that it didn’t matter whether you had money or not, the theater was too important not to go.” 

As my dad talked, some of the lost pieces began to form back together. I could now picture Burt’s young smiling face as he watched the lights on the stage. Remaining questions, however, still swirled in my head. Did he find what he was looking for in New York? Was he even looking for anything? The images of gay men in the magazines and magnets that were hidden in his apartment floated above these questions like a threatening dark-gray storm cloud about to burst. But rather than rain, the gray clouds thinned out and spread across the horizon. There was no cathartic release, only endless gray skies. 

***

How early did he know he was attracted to men? I knew since the seventh grade, around the time when Justin Bieber transitioned from sweet teen heartthrob to bad boy. I watched the “Boyfriend” music video on repeat that year. Even though I grew up in a liberal suburb in New Jersey I still kept those feelings hidden in the dark back rooms of my brain, sheltered by the clutter of everyday life. It wasn’t until later, when those feelings grew even stronger, that I decided to open the blinds. I didn’t want someone to discover the truth by searching through my collection of artifacts after I died. I remember the anxiety and fear that pushed me to keep myself hidden. I couldn’t imagine having those same feelings in Virginia in the ’60s. It made sense that he wouldn’t come out, but the truth is that I don’t know what Burt went through. I wanted to believe that maybe he lived freely for that brief time in New York. Maybe he wasn’t alone. Was he ever able to be honest about himself to anyone? I wanted so badly to know about this side of his life. I hoped that maybe a close friend or old lover that we never knew about would try and get in contact with us and all of my questions would be answered, but there has only ever been silence.

Categories
Voices

Double Alienation

by Xiaoqian Zhu | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Jacob Butcher

A Chinese Student in polarized America.


On a steamy August day in 2011, my classmates were preparing to go back to heavy loads of schoolwork and face the ticking clock in each classroom counting down to Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. I was boarding a plane at Hong Kong International Airport, grasping a file folder with my passport, documents, exchange student guide, a map of San Francisco International Airport and a few pages of introduction to Louisiana. I knew Louisiana would be different from the America I saw on TV—skyscrapers, bridges, busy streets with burger joints and dim bars. “Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the US,” I read. What would that look like?, I thought to myself. Surely still better than the poorest parts of China? Words from Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago, which I learned about on my Casio electronic dictionary as English practice, began to sound in my memory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

I landed in America as part of a high school exchange program. Before that, I was studying at one of the most selective public high schools in Guangzhou. I cried on the phone to my mother for feeling dumb in math and physics classes, and felt small while my classmates were running Student Union, winning national academic awards, traveling globally and performing on world-class stages. I wanted to keep up with my peers, and that included studying abroad—roughly 150–200 out of the 1,000 students in my class ended up getting a Western college education. I thought by going to America, I’d shake off all these pressures of always achieving and be appreciated for my personality, finally be free and happy. The magic words Obama spoke were soon to be met with a completely different, cold, harsh reality. The true America was about to unfold in front of me.

***

For the first 3 months in Louisiana, I struggled to fully understand English spoken with a Southern accent. But that did not stop me from doing many things for the first time: I read a corny English love novel, attended a dance party, taught my classmates Chinese history, performed a monologue in drama club—things I could not do in China due to the intense focus on studying. But there were also many nights I spent tackling American history, a much thicker textbook than my Chinese history textbook despite America’s significantly shorter history. I was mesmerized by what America was “about.”

Talking to Americans was just as eye-opening, in its own way. My rich, spoiled, white host sister rolled her eyes at friends I made: poor white girls who liked coloring and math, a daughter of two lesbians, Pentecostals who always covered their bodies fully, a Black teen mom, and other Asian exchange students.

I was determined to blend in as an equal to American kids. I wanted to break the smart, studious, nerdy Asian stereotype. However, my determination was not rewarded. Instead, I had my first taste of racism. As the only Chinese girl in town, I thought “exotic” was good. It was rare, after all. I even prepared myself for loads of eccentric questions. But at a point they stopped being just eccentric. The words I was looking for to describe questions like “Does China have internet?” were “racist” and “ignorant.” But I was 16 and in a foreign country for 3 months. I didn’t know how to use those words as weapons to fight back. So I kept the injury to myself.

It got worse when my white host sister started calling me “Chi” and laughed boisterously at me for looking “Chinese” during a Chinese circus show on a holiday trip to Nashville. “Is that your brother, Chi?” She burst into laughter. It was the first time I felt that being “different” meant “inferior” to some people. Nothing prepared me for this. Not High School Musical, Friends, or Titanic, the few exposures I’d had to the idea of “America.” Not even the early warnings about racism from people back home. I didn’t know then what it is like in reality.

It took me many nights of tears to swallow my fear and finally be brave enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” When I transferred to another host family—a young white Baptist couple fond of the Southern conservative lifestyle—and a private Christian school, things were a little bit better. However, while she treated me politely, my second host mom still considered it “rude” of me to not attend church with them on Sunday mornings, despite my explicit disbelief in Christianity. Later I realized that they took me in to “educate” me about God. My difference made my classmates, teachers and host family all the more eager to spread the Gospel—the “good news”—to save me from “ignorance.”

Secretly, I had wished my anxiety for the future could be resolved by believing in Jesus. But I knew the brutal competition of American college applications awaited upon my return to China. A white friend didn’t understand why I had to go to some so-called “elite” and expensive college in the US rather than attend the local University of Louisiana campus like her. I could try to explain to her what education meant to a Chinese family like mine, that it was worth it for my parents to send me across the ocean to seek a better, perhaps “elite,” alternative. But instead I said, “I just have to.”

***

Naturally, my college search became a search for the very opposite of Louisiana. I was looking for a crowd that would value diversity and champion tolerance, inclusivity, and love as well as empathy for the “different.” With that spirit, I was immediately drawn to an online post about an elite liberal arts college in the heart of Ohio.

Oberlin stood out as my curiosity for the “other side” of America grew—an all-accepting sanctuary for marginalized, left-leaning intellectuals. It seemed that if I attended Oberlin, I would be surrounded by educated people from metropolitan areas who would have had interactions with Chinese people and also possess a fair amount of knowledge about my culture. I wouldn’t feel unsafe because minorities like me, a Chinese international student, would be heard and seen. Being different would not only be accepted but celebrated.

For anyone who’s idealized a romantic relationship and gotten their heart broken later, it is not hard to guess that my love story at Oberlin didn’t exactly go well.

It started with my observations of the heated campus political climate. Quickly, I picked up the vernacular that students used in discussions and protests: POC, institution, status quo, colonialism, white supremacy. Activism moved me with its passion. It is something that Chinese society would never allow. Growing up being the “good” student, I naturally was attracted to the rebellious nature of activism in various forms—writing, protesting, slam poetry, visual arts, you name it. Politics changed the way I think about my relationships with others and the society I live in. I became a politics major and a news writer for the Oberlin Review, through which I could learn about people of different communities.

Yet it also didn’t take long for me to sense that something didn’t seem quite right. Oberlin’s student body is 64% white, has a median family income of $178,000, and is predominately liberal. While often openly siding with POC, some white students told me they felt silenced as the POC community grew radical and shut down conversations with “it is not my responsibility to educate you.”

People were afraid to speak their minds and confined themselves to their own experiences in public discussions. In my Intro to the Black Experience class, few white students participated in the discussion because it seemed to be intruding on the “safe space” for black students. I was the only Asian student and I also didn’t raise my hand to speak. Not even once. I thought my job was to listen and learn, since I never lived that experience.

If I was honest then and did not worry about what Oberlin activists thought of my unpopular opinion, I would shout out that I didn’t like all this one-sided self-righteous loud-as-hell noise. I was overwhelmed by the arrogant “it is not my responsibility to educate you”-type of rhetoric that filled my interactions with liberal-minded Oberlin students. As an international student, I was not aware of the racial dynamics in the US at the beginning of college, and that is precisely why I wanted to learn. If you don’t tell me what the issues are, I will never know. And the truth is, I WANT to know.

As opposed to the negative stereotypes of Chinese students and scholars imposed by conservatives—job-stealing immigrants or untrustworthy spies—the liberal students at Oberlin seem to have their own issues with Chinese students: Chinese students are seen as a wealthy and privileged crowd; they are the new “whites,” compared to the struggling first-generation, low-income, and undocumented American students, who are often people of color. Indeed, most Chinese students at Oberlin pay full tuition and often come from affluent cities in China. Even at other US universities, Chinese students are often seen as “cash cows” or “walking ATMs” that “fix” the financial situation, contributing about $13 billion to the US economy in 2017–2018.

Chinese, from time to time, is spoken and heard on campus. Oberlin has a campus culture where friendship stems from allyship, especially when it comes to how students find community through identity. Some Chinese students tend to cling together and share similar political views. It wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions; I simply tried to keep them within my Chinese-speaking community or close friends, rather than discuss them publicly, because I felt safer with those who were similar to me and might not challenge me.

When the tension between the US and China started to grow because of Trump’s trade war and cybersecurity concerns, more negative rhetoric about Chinese students, pushed by American mainstream media, began flooding US college campuses. Chinese students were labeled in international newspapers like the New York Times as academically unqualified “cheaters,” or “communists,” unassimilable into liberal democracy, and “intelligence thieves” with ulterior motives. An East Asian Studies professor and advisor to the Oberlin Chinese Student Association suggested that Chinese students “break up” the “gangs” to avoid unnecessary and sometimes even unconscious hostility from our American peers, students and professors alike. Being a politics major, I was already hyper-sensitive to the political atmosphere on campus. I couldn’t figure out why my very own existence at Oberlin had to be challenged this way, as if I didn’t belong. It brought me down on many days.

***

Freshmen year, my mental health started to deteriorate due to academic pressure, and I was suffering the emotional distress of an unhealthy relationship which lasted into my junior year. When I finally got out of it, I was drained. My coping mechanisms completely crashed when I failed an economics class due to extreme pressure and fear of ruining my transcript.

My health went into a downward spiral. It was dangerously optimistic of me to think that medication could fix it all. I thought, naively, that I could go on taking challenging courses, until finally I lost all energy to keep up with schoolwork and struggled every single day to go to class. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, counting the seconds, was my loneliest moment at Oberlin. I remember feeling so helpless that I was reaching out everywhere to friends and professors and talking nonsense. Eventually, I was hospitalized and my father flew in from China to accompany me home after taking medical leave.

What was awaiting me at home, however, were questions, confusion, doubts and disappointments from my parents, relatives and even friends about the reason I “became” ill. A psychology textbook will tell you it was a combination of genetic and environmental factors. No one in my family had been “diagnosed”, though my mother and her side of the family tend to be ill-tempered. So my parents leaned into the environmental factors after I tried to explain what happened to me: “You are too engaged with other people’s businesses.” “You lacked boundaries.” “You are not a fit for politics and you shouldn’t study it, it’s too controversial and you cannot handle it.” “You should not have gone to America, their epidemics of mental illness made you sick.” “You are not able to manage your emotions.”

The worst and most hurtful comment I received was from my aunt: “you are ill because you are too spoiled.” I don’t know what that means. Is it that in my aunt’s eyes, getting everything I wanted, Oberlin and a major in politics, was too expensive and unrealistic for my parents to bear? She never said. My father called my mental illness a “rich person’s disease,” and claimed that no one could save me, not doctors, therapists, friends or God, if I didn’t have the will to “power through”. I felt deep frustration from my mother, who had always advocated for me to study abroad, as she began to murmur, “If I had known you were ill, I’d never let you go overseas.”

***

How do you expect the native to feel the alien when they’ve never set foot on another continent? It has never been equal. In conservative Louisiana, people saw me as this strange Asian girl who was far more interested in getting an A+ in American history than in knowing how to chill and drink at a party. They asked me unbearably funny questions about China and my ethnicity. I was made to feel that being Chinese was out of place, foreign. Yet at Oberlin, a liberal paradise, I was expected, as an international student, to know everything about both national and local political and racial discourse. No one wanted to slow down and explain anything to me. These perceptions and expectations are not the same, but in the end both made me feel that I simply could not fit in in America.

So I left America, a place where both conservatives and liberals alienated me for my Chinese-ness, only to come home to another kind of alienation from my own family, my own people.

Acceptance, empathy, understanding, respect, love… These are the things I crave, not just on a personal level but in the environment I live in. I am aware that these things don’t come easily. Collectively, as humans, we have to learn to practice them together, across differences. It is unknown, scary sometimes. But I am not giving in.

Categories
Voices

The Last Humans

by Robert Stott | Voices | Spring 2020

Image by Robert Stott

We are the Homo sapiens, the only humans. We’re able to communicate complexly, coordinate over vast distances, pass down and preserve knowledge and ideas, build tools and shelters, and bend nature itself to our will. We were not always alone as we are now. For millions of years there were other human species living on Earth, long before we existed. Archaic hominin species often possessed abilities or skills considered to be solely “human” in nature. Homo Habilis, were hitting rocks with other rocks and building crude tools some two million years ago. Homo Heidelbergensis were likely making (terrible) shelters to protect themselves from the elements 700,000 years ago. Neanderthals were making jewelry 430,000 years ago, and probably buried their dead. Around 200,000 years ago, when good ol’ Homo sapiens waded out of the primordial soup, there were at least six different human species living at the same time. So what happened to the others? What wiped out all of our closest relatives, many of whom did things uniquely “human?” And, not that I’m complaining, but why didn’t Homo sapiens die with them? 

The answer is elusive, but a big part of it lies within our capacity for language. There is no doubt that some of our human ancestors were intelligent, at least to the degree that they were capable of communicating, making shelters and clothing, and cooking and hunting with tools among other things. It is likely though, that our sibling species could not use language as a tool. It is important to note the difference between language and speech. Language is the abstract use of symbols in order to represent and explain the environment around us. It also involves the combination of symbols into increasingly complex chains of thought that are representative of ideas or concepts, which can then be conveyed to others. Speech is the physical act of using language through vocal muscles. Language doesn’t have to be spoken, and can be conveyed through gestures, body language, non-verbal vocalizations, and writing. For example, chimpanzees are our closest living relatives and have what is best described as a protolanguage. They have very little ability to control vocalizations and therefore rarely rely on calls or “speech.” Instead, they have over 60 distinct gestures and are able to communicate to each other through body language and signs. The communication practices of the Deaf community also illustrate this distinction. Many hearing-impaired persons use a complex system of physical signing in order to communicate—this is language without speech. There is evidence indicating that Neanderthals, some of our most recent ancestors, may have been physically capable of speech. Language, on the other hand, and the symbolic intuition it requires, was probably impossible for them. 

Homo sapiens evolved with the physical potential for speech, and more extraordinarily, the cognitive dexterity required for language. This ability to speak and create language allowed us to strengthen our social and cultural bonds as well as organize and coordinate. In turn, we were able to out-compete any other species for food, land, and other resources. Although individually we are physically weak, together human beings are the most powerful species on the planet, and our ability to “do language” allowed us to link together and become a global superorganism. 

The capacity to use language is an extremely complicated and rare phenomenon and the truth is that linguists and anthropologists aren’t even sure how it evolved. There are a number of leading theories, but because brains don’t fossilize and there are no records of the origins of language, we can’t know for certain. One thing that is certain is that if there is a singular difference that can be pointed at to represent what makes us unique, it is our capability for thought. Our self-reflexive insight and what we call our consciousness stem directly from our ability to produce and understand language. Without the capacity for symbolic thought and organization both required by and produced by language, we would lack the capacities for mental abstraction and symbolism required to be ‘conscious’ – to understand our own thoughts and the distinctions between the external world and our perception of it. Our “doing language” is a curious process because it both requires our proficiency with symbolic thought, and provides for it, increasing and amplifying our ability to adopt, synthesize, and alter more symbols in a way that seems to be the spark for what we consider consciousness. In fact, what seems to be the epitome of human cognito-uniqueness is that Homo Sapiens exist in realities that they construct in their own minds by absorbing, structuring, symbolizing, and organizing the world around them. All other creatures, (most likely including Neanderthals as well) live in the worlds presented to them. 

How did we get from learning how to make weird sounds with our mouths and throats and gesturing to each other to being a comprehensively interconnected and integrated network of super-intelligent primates?  

The linchpin of human civilization is built directly on top of language, in the form of myths. With language, you can create myths. With myths, you have complete control over the world. They allow intricate social and political structures to form throughout the species and in turn create a linked culture. In this context, I don’t just mean myths as in stories about vengeful gods or old folk tales from the ancient past. Myths are shared ideologies that arise when a social group decides to make some shit up and most of them agree to play by the same rules. Money, political systems or governments, educational systems, and social codes are all myths. For money, we all agree that a certain object is arbitrarily worth something universally agreed upon, and then can be traded in exchange with other arbitrarily valued objects. Political systems and governments are made up of vast systems of completely conceptual abstractions put into practice, like economies, laws, and social codes. All of these things are fictions, concepts made up and agreed upon collectively. Herein lies the strength of the human union. 

Humans as we are today first appeared some 200,000 years ago. After a bit of dicking about and sitting on our bipedal behinds, we end up starting to really comprehend—symbols begin appearing in our minds and, soon after, we find we can manipulate them. We experience the outside world not as passive bystanders but as perpetual builders. The world is constantly being classified, organized, and reconstructed in our minds. We see things around us, give them representations in our heads: we see a tree and we can identify that it’s a tree. When we see other trees, we know they’re trees. Then we start to move these symbols around, come up with new combinations or variations: there are different kinds of trees, trees can be a source of food, trees are made of wood, wood makes shelter, and so on. After that we start to use hand motions and then vocal projections to universalize and give physical form to the symbols we have in our minds. Symbolic representation is more complex than simply reproducing an object and its relations in our head. Concepts are symbolically realized as well. Things like sadness, pleasure, death, and colors all lack a distinct physical form, but are nonetheless still presented in our psyche as having meanings, relations, implications. Because of this new method of describing and understanding abstract conceptions like these, we become able to explain and share ideas beyond the practicality of staying alive—practices involving the dead, spirituality, and art all became possible. We share these symbols with others of our kind, and we are able to convey things about the world around us not only to ourselves but to others. 

So, we develop language that gets more complex as time goes on. After some more standing around with our thumbs up our collective ass, generally being killed on a near-constant basis by most things, we start strengthening our social coordination, allowing us to greatly expand our individual lifespans. We form families beyond biology. Tribes develop social codes and ideas, coalitions of members of our species living together and sharing ideas and feelings on a mass scale. Social systems start to become more complex, and soon we end up in an era where there’s agriculture, towns, cities, huge gatherings of humans trading ideas and beliefs. Then there’s a rapid acceleration of human development, both in population and socially. We end up forming cities and then nation states and then countries, until we have a linked civilization across the globe. We’ve become the rulers of the planet, a species with unprecedented power. 

Let’s take a step back. Although we may be doing fairly well as a species now—insofar as we’re not dying faster than we are being born—it has been an extremely unpleasant journey for us. Archeological evidence shows that there was a point around 75,000 years ago where the human species bottlenecked to somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 people, making us an endangered species. For a time, we were unbearably close to dying out and losing thousands of years of progress, growth, future lives, and civilizations. Through sheer luck, stubbornness, ingenuity—or possibly a combination of the three—we managed to bounce back from the bottleneck, exploding into the future and developing more rapidly than the planet that created us could ever hope to keep up with. 

We evolved over millions of years, growing and changing through time. We came into existence as the Homo sapien, and spent the majority of 200,000 years shitting our pants and dying because of disease, famine, hardship, and nature, all of which had literally been killing us at every possible opportunity until now. We may still have those problems but by and large we’ve pushed back death, conquered the planet and mowed the lawn, put nature in a cage and maybe accidentally killed it. It took us 200,000 years to get to the first billion Homo sapiens in 1804. In 1927, the population reached two billion, then three billion in 1959, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, six billion in 1999, seven billion in 2012, right billion in the few years, and we will eventually level off around 9–10 billion (assuming the planet isn’t plunged into a nuclear winter in the near future). 

Without our ability to wield language as a tool and as a weapon, Homo sapiens might have died out with the rest of the humans in the last 200 millennia and millions of years of human evolution, the rise of sentience and sapience, may have come to an end before it even had a chance to truly develop.