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.
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.
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.
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 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.
When studio art majors decide to have a casual dinner party, what they are really doing is constructing a performance. Classic table settings have been jetissoned and in their place are hand-made clay figurines. Absolutely no utensils can be found, and meticulously picked out rocks from Chance Creek stand in for plates. The candle wax is to be poured and manipulated while eating, and please, consider saving the bones from your meat for some artistic repurposing. I, as an English major, am privy to this knowledge as the housemate of three senior studio art majors. I’ve been best friends with my two housemates Olivia and Stella since freshman year and have just gotten to know Zoe, our third housemate, this semester. I’ve watched them all grow and struggle as artists during this strange school year, but mostly I have been paying attention to how their artistry has taken up space in our off-campus house. I sat down with my roommates to chat about who they are as artists and to reconcile the ways in which their processes have taken on our home as their vessel during our fall semester.
Mary Brody: So, I think I know you’re going to hate this first question but, what would you say your artist statement is at the moment if you have one?
Olivia Berke: No, no, I will answer questions if that is what you want. It’s not going to be perfect though?
MB: Yes, of course.
OB: Right now I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can. I’ve been trying to find and explore those moments through trying to create something that exists only in these very specific times and spaces. I’m also just very interested in the idea of collapse when things are placed in such precarious positions, so it’s a lot of accumulation and balancing and stacking for me right now.
Beyond that, I think just as an artist, a general through line in my work would be making things that are kind of two things and nothing at once—basically I’m just always very interested in hybridity. I frequently use found materials and recognizable objects and then, either in a repetitive way or in some small altercation I force, try to change how you think about them.
When we arrived at our house in early August, Olivia immediately started building a wire sculpture in the backyard. It was four tall ladders made of and connected by thin wire, and no one could understand how it balanced like it did. Olivia spent weeks in the field across from our house standing on one foot, then the other, trying to understand the thing she created.
As the COVID-19 school year approached, it seemed like the precariously positioned sculpture in our backyard might be one of the only constants in our lives. The wire sculpture withstood high winds and heavy rains. Our landlord would recklessly mow the lawn all around the sculpture, getting extremely close but never disturbing it. Then one day, a friend came over and tapped the side of one of the ladders lightly, causing it to immediately crumble over. Olivia said this was a sign, but I’m not fully sure what she meant by that.
MB: I love the balancing stuff you’ve been working on and I also think it’s, yes, definitely a relatively new focus for you.
OB: Definitely, and also organized chaos. Oh! One thing I think I should mention that is just very core to everything is thinking about ways of using, or really maybe forcing, materials and discovering these relationships where you’re pushing it to do something and it’s pushing back at you to do something else. I’m also always listening and trying to work with and against the materials I use.
MB: I think that kind of give and take and communication is really visible in your work and just connects nicely to your concerns with hybridity and balance. I thought of how I’ve definitely noticed in my witnessing of your artistic evolution over the years that rummaging and scavenging have become pretty huge for your practice. Could you talk about that process and what you’re looking for?
OB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in objects that would be considered not noticeable or are typically overlooked like, you know, trash or just discarded extra material. Let’s say that something falls off of a bike—then there is not only the story that that instance holds but the whole history of the object and I just see a lot of beauty in that. And, you know, I think other people see that beauty too. It’s just I’m talking about objects that we are typically conditioned not to look at.
In my work it’s about finding these objects that have feelings and emotions, taking them out of their context, off the side of the street, and then using them as a jumping-off point. Usually if I find something I can say, “Okay, well this object needs this to make it something that tells a story or expresses something important.” But also it’s not that the work starts around an object.
Sometimes I will be working on something and I’ll be struggling to finish it, and I can’t figure out what it needs and then I’ll walk down the street and see the perfect thing to complete it! You know? That’s it! And you take it to the studio, it’s some tree branch or something, and then you paint it and that is it! And now that we have a house I can just retrieve and collect so many massive things I couldn’t before.
The first floor of our house has served largely as a collection ground for Olivia’s strange found materials. I wake up one morning and go into the foyer, and there are scraps of roofing and tiles and other remnants of a house that was demolished nearby. (When Olivia finds out there is a house being demolished nearby she is like a kid on Christmas.) These scraps already somehow look like both art and garbage to me, but Olivia describes the whole new life she plans to bring to them once she gets them into the studio. Often, as soon as the materials arrive in the living room or foyer, they are taken away to be worked on, leaving the house feeling empty until Olivia goes rummaging again and refills the space. The garbage really makes our house feel like a home.
MB: So, shifting to the now: How has quarantine and the strange state of the world been impeding or accelerating your process?
OB: It’s been hard. It feels like nothing is important but everything is important at this time. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what making art means right now and how my practice fits into that. What I’m thinking about right now is that the opportunity for community building is so at the center of art, but it’s so often that that is not the case. There were definitely times over quarantine when I was too sad or angry to work, but now, having the space to do it, creating and thinking about it as a means for connection, is really what keeps me going. And to connect this back to what I was saying about my interest in balance, I think that it is informed largely by the kind of emotional pendulum we’ve been living in, and looking for that stability, maybe just for my own sanity.
MB: In terms of Senior Studio, do you have any mission or specific approach for this year?
OB: If I’m being perfectly honest, what I want out of Senior Studio is just to feel confident enough that I can do this as a career. The stakes are lower than in the real world so I want to really be pushed and told when something is bad and why. This is the only thing that I want to do so it needs to be what I do, but it sucks because it’s such a hard thing to do or make money off of. So yes, I’d just like confidence. But I also am enjoying building an understanding of a studio practice and how to self-motivate to be constantly creating and be more introspective.
MB: Can you speak about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?
OB: Yes! My first piece is called Point/Counterpoint and it was the only piece that I had made weeks ago. Everything else was made specifically for this show. That piece had actually started as a floor piece, but we moved it to the wall for the show which was exciting. I’ll admit I was against the wall at first, I guess. Or I didn’t want the wall to feel like too much support for the piece, but I really think it held its own.
Then I had Plank and Hoop, which was really about the themes I was talking about earlier—gravity, balance, and things pushing back or supporting things. The plank in that piece was really just such a great chunk of found wood. I also liked that it was next to my drawing, AnImpossible Stability, to contextualize it a bit. That drawing came together sort of last-minute, but I do think it tied the pieces together nicely.
My last piece, Forced Attraction, was truly a puzzle to put together. The tubing I used to make the structure just did not want to mold, but I think that helped with communicating what I wanted to about an uncomfortable or awkward connection and instability. I was happy with it as my only freestanding piece in the show.
MB: What is your hope for postgrad?
OB: Oh my God, just write down, “Shrieks.” But really, all I could hope for in the future is being able to create and work toward making art more accessible. It’s just such a valuable tool and if you don’t like it that’s fine, but at least you know how to make something with your hands, you know?
I think it’s an interesting time and a real moment of reconciliation for the art community about the future of art and all of the current issues embedded in the art world as we know it. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a studio and hopefully, way down the line, I could make some money off of my work. I don’t know, I want to be an artist!
MB: If you have one, what would you say your artist statement is?
Stella Mulroney: I’d say it’s more of a vibe than a statement.
MB: Sure, an artist vibe.
SM: Well, I think a lot about dreams, you know, the dreamscape. I have really intense dreams where I am frequently visited by entities that are honestly beyond my comprehension. I also find that I have a lot of dreams where I’m experiencing a very real feeling of pain, like, I frequently have violent car-crash dreams that are almost sensory or somatic. So I’ve been focusing a lot on trying to make the things that are in my dreams represented in reality and representing bodily pain that I maybe haven’t actually felt physically—while lucid—but that I feel in my brain while sleeping.
On a separate note, I also use a lot of writing in my work. Writing won’t necessarily appear in the final piece, but I do a lot of writing, trying to articulate what I am making as I make it. To get it out of my brain I need to write it out first, I guess. Sometimes I feature recordings or videos of spoken word in installations, too. Songs I write too, sometimes.
On any given day in our house you can hear Stella singing a tune and strumming her guitar in her room. Her soft voice fills the taut silence of a home full of artists who quietly sculpt or paint, and in my case write. My room in the house is directly under Stella’s. Most nights, I hear her take breaks from working on her pieces for Senior Studio to sing a little song. I never fully recognize any of them, they aren’t popular or well-known, but they feel safe and familiar because they are something Stella crafted.
MB: Similarly to Olivia, when I first met you, I would have probably only described you as a photographer, but in your time at Oberlin it’s been nice to see you experiment with sculpture and, like you mentioned, video. Could you talk about that evolution?
SM: I don’t think I came to college knowing I would definitely be an art major, but I loved photography in high school. When I got to Oberlin I just decided to take a photography class because I figured I’d be good at it, and I ended up loving it so much and falling in love with the whole department.
I truly never thought I would sculpt in all my days, but then I took a sculpture class with Nannette Yannuzzi and it changed the way I looked at what I could do. Like, everything opened up. I got very excited about different dimensions and movement in art. I also don’t really think I necessarily want to primarily be a visual artist in life, but I have loved it here and it informs everything else I do. But I will never draw in my whole life.
MB: The strength of your emotions around drawing brings me to my next question: a lot of the work you’ve made here is very powerful in how personal it feels, could you talk about that level of intimacy and how much of “you” is in your work?
SM: A lot of artists, in a way I really respect, are in their work but in a very removed way; the work is still their heart but it’s not easy to identify the artist in the art. I bring a lot of personal narrative into my work. I find using personal issues in my work really cathartic and also I am a chronic oversharer so it works for me to a certain degree. I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work. Also, for myself as a viewer, I really enjoy when I see that candidness in other work because I feel such a deep connection to that.
MB: How has working in these unprecedented times been? How has it affected your approach to your last year?
SM: There is a good amount of un-motivation. I feel, as we all do, pretty emotionally drained already, and creating art is kind of an emotionally draining activity. I’m glad to have deadlines again to get me into creative motivation. But I feel disconnected from the studio, too; I do most of my work from home because there is more space…
Stella does have a lot of space in our house, and when she is not filling it with art, she is amassing a large army of reptiles upstairs. Close to 30 animals live in Stella’s room/studio with her: one leopard gecko, one lizard, two frogs, a few snails, and 20-some-odd exotic fish. These animals likely have a better idea of Stella’s artistic process than anyone else. Some days, Stella will move a piece she’s working on about her dream entities out of her room and into the living room. And most days, a new box of crickets or tank-cleaning snails arrives on our doorstep. Stella’s space is in constant flux—living creatures coming in and creatures of artistic imagination being pumped out.
SM: … I also have never been into a very regimented studio practice. It’s weird—I don’t want to make art about the unprecedented times, but it also feels weird to present art about my dreams. I guess it’s a nice escape but there is some pressure to respond to this moment through art, and then maybe my art could be an escape for the viewer, too.
MB: Can you speak a little bit about the piece you have in the senior halftime show?
SM: Yes! I did a video installation titled Osmosis. I was thinking about subconscious entities or things that can weigh down on your physical form, and trying to balance fighting that off and letting it happen. It was a pretty personal and reflective piece.
I was thinking a lot about my past life and the idea that for a lot of people, in order to grow, there has to be some kind of shedding of the past or getting rid of older parts of you that may no longer be useful, even if that’s painful. Along with that, the audio is a song I wrote in high school and the bass recording is from high school, but I sang over it again now just to think about peeling away and piling on.
MB: What would you say you envision your future as an artist looking like?
SM: This is maybe funny for this interview, but for me personally, I think being a studio art major in college has made me realize that I don’t want to be a visual artist in life. I’ve loved studying here, but I think it’s great that I learned that it maybe can’t be the main thing I’m doing. I’ll certainly be working in a creative field and everything I learned as an art major here will impact anything I do, so I am very glad I got to explore myself here.
MB: What would you say your working artist statement is at the moment?
Zoe Iatridis: I mostly paint portraits, mostly self-portraits. I’ve always found it pretty difficult to say what they’re about because I generally don’t know when I start. I feel like the work kind of emerges from some intuitive place in me, and only after does it make sense, sometimes many months later.
I would say, though, that I’m concerned with trying to capture some truth about the way that I experience the world and the things that have impacted me in my life, kind of knowing that that is futile. No matter how good my work is or how evocative a painting is, nothing will truly allow me to instill in someone what I’m feeling or thinking. We’re all always feeling some impossible combinations of emotions all the time, and it’s very difficult to make sense of ourselves and impossible to communicate to others in a totally true way. So that is kind of what my art is concerned with broadly.
More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and family and one’s place, or the relationships we use to root ourselves and find some sense of selfhood through. I’m always pretty focused on ephemerality, too.
MB: I only know you as a painter, and you’ve mentioned to me that painting has always been your medium. Can you talk about discovering that?
ZI: I was always a creative and quirky kid, but I never really had an outlet for it, and would just draw on my own time, so I never considered myself an artist. I started painting during my first year of high school and just kind of never stopped. It wasn’t really a decision, either—I didn’t think about it, I just began to paint. I’ve experimented with other mediums, photography in particular, but none have felt as authentic to me.
MB: And have portraits always been an area of interest?
ZI: I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes. So it’s just been forever. My dad will sometimes say I need to find something else to paint, but I can’t! There’s nothing else for me. Only recently, I would say in junior studio last fall, is when I started really explicitly making self-portraits. Prior to that, I would paint a lot of people that looked a lot like me but weren’t meant to exactly “be” me. I love the exercise of repetition in repainting the same face, my face, over and over in this kind of compulsive way, and I think that that connects back to my concerns of trying to communicate and be known. It’s kind of like looking at yourself and trying to understand and repeat it while also allowing yourself to be vulnerable and portray whatever version of yourself needs to exist in that moment.
One day, while moving furniture into the attic, I discovered Zoe’s collection of self-portraits. What seemed like over 20 large rolled canvases were spread out around the floor. Out of curiosity, I began to unroll them, not understanding who they were or who could have made them, but recognizing some feeling of familiarity in the eyes of each portrait’s face. I moved them near the window, allowing the light to wash over them, and I finally saw Zoe. It felt kind of like I was looking at something I shouldn’t be, that maybe I was invading the privacy of my new roommate just by happening upon these canvases. Now, I think that that intense vulnerability is just inherent in Zoe’s practice of portraiture, and the way I felt in the attic was a possible moment of artistic success for my new friend.
MB: What has your evolution as a painter been like at Oberlin?
ZI: I came to college knowing I loved art and knowing I wanted to be an art major, but I had no idea what I cared about—I just felt like I had to do it. I actually didn’t take a painting class here until the spring of my sophomore year. I think most of my first two years were about exploring other mediums and techniques, which I think did end up making me a better painter. I was so focused on learning something new in those two years though, rather than learning a specific concept, so I just kind of felt like someone who was taking art classes but couldn’t fully connect. Then, when I got into that painting class, I started to feel the shift to actually feeling like an artist.
MB: What is painting and finishing up your college career under these circumstances like?
ZI: I think it’s really affected my work. I’m still broadly concerned with the same thing, but I’ve gone down a narrow path of focusing on loss. I think this time has forced everyone to confront the fact that every important thing and relationship in your life is fleeting. In my work, I’ve been trying to reconcile the sadness of that fact with the happiness of having those things when you do. In quarantine I was feeling so stuck, but now I think that I was just digesting everything and I’m ready to make art about it.
MB: Something very cool about you is that you are actually a double major with art history and you have a curatorial job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Could you speak about how studying art history has impacted your process?
ZI: It never occurred to me that I might want to be an art history major as well, and then I fell in love with the department. I think studying art history has informed my work in really interesting ways, and making work has informed the ways I think about art history. I really do think all artists should have some knowledge of art history; it just seems silly that you wouldn’t know the context of what you’re creating.
Also, yes, my curatorial job at the Allen—I’ve been doing a lot of research on paintings that we have acquired from like 1900 to 1980, and it’s my job to go through the curatorial file and go through all the auction records and places that the pieces have been before. It’s really interesting to be intimate with a piece of art in that way and track its history, so I’m enjoying it. I think just being with art in many different ways as an artist can be really important.
MB: Can you speak a little bit about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?
ZI: I am showing a portrait of me as a child—painted from a photograph my grandmother gave me—a painting of me and my mother on the couch, and a large painting of me lying on a lily pad, like a frog.
The image of me and my mother on the couch has been something I wanted to paint for a while. I’ve been thinking about the craving of my mom’s comfort and the limitations of that as I get older. It was hard to paint sometimes because I love my mom so much and I really wanted to do it justice. It was definitely tricky and it was my first time working with mixed media, with the textures, which was actually sort of an accident.
The portrait of me as a child is just special because it’s a moment I now know was one that I spent with my grandmother. It sort of feels like something kind of separate from the timeline of my life, so it’s a nice connection to my grandmother, whom I love so much, even though it’s not part of my memory with her.
The lily pad painting just came from my strange dreams about frogs over the past few months. I don’t really believe that dreams are symbolic, but I truly dream about frogs in a way that is serious and… sad? Maybe melancholy? This sounds crazy. I don’t know, it’s just become a thing that serves as a marker for where I’m at in my life right now. I think maybe just seeing my paintings in the show, without an artist statement or anything, they may not seem like they’re in conversation.
Of course, to me they are related or in conversation, and I’m excited about it because it’s like three divergent paths off of the same theme. I also think I want to continue to work on them next semester, and then one day maybe they’ll make more sense to the viewer in conversation.
MB: What is a hope for postgrad?
ZI: I don’t know. All I know is I have to be making art and prioritizing that in my life because it makes me so happy. But I don’t really know. I want a life where I can make work, and hopefully show it to some people, and hopefully some of those people like it. There are so many uncertainties in the coming years but I know art has to be at the center of my life, so that is really just the driving force for me.
The halftime show opened on November 13th. When I spoke to Zoe on the Saturday after the show about how she thought it went, we were less than a week away from Thanksgiving break, and Zoe would be the first of all of us to leave the house and head home for over a month. That Saturday night, we all sat in our living room, which was filled with Stella’s sculptures and Olivia’s masks and a painting that Zoe had made of the outside of our house the very first week we moved in. It was sad to think about the art, which really felt like its own life force in our house, being left alone in the dead of an Ohio winter. After a wave of silence, Zoe looked up at all of us and said, “You know, it’s really dawning on me, how much I’ll miss you guys and the house and my tea on the porch in the mornings and the backyard at night and just, you know, our space.”
am listening to “tintin in tibet.” it’s autumn, and cooler than it was, and phil elverum says, “you don’t exist / i sing to you, though.”
he’s singing this to his wife, geneviève, who passed a few years ago, just after their daughter was born.
phil’s songs are great missives often written to his wife, or to the ether, or helios, or raven’s feathers; he’ll skirt around the point, but never quite arrive at it, such that his ideas leak in a sort of scattered melancholy.
… it’s autumn. in the song, too, i think.
now only, you
are probably not thinking of me and certainly not singing to me, or to anyone else. maybe to yourself.
the air is drier, and i keep sneezing into my mask. can i write that so nonchalantly?
this is a moment i think we’ll remember, which is a small devastation like when i touch the place where you kissed my neck, not intending to cry, or when i realize i’ll never quite discern between certain blues. “tintin in tibet” plays on loop,
and now i’m aware it isn’t autumn after all.
now only, we
should have known; the lawns are free of leaves, and the date is apparent to anyone with a fair grasp of things. i sit on my stoop and share a look
with a black bird in our maple tree. phil sings, “standing in the front yard like an open wound / repeating ‘i love you,’ to who?”
and i get the sudden sense that he’s somehow read my psyche, or at least my poems, and then i feel stupid for associating my loss with his.
and then i just feel sorrow.
behind me, the sun sets in blankets of glare, falling from a distant windowpane. i don’t notice the sky change color; blue, to blue, to blue. can you live in the moment when the moment is just begging
to be passed through? like this weather, like each small devastation breaking across my neck; like each aching moment of “tintin in tibet,” and yet i listen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When we began planning this issue in June, we faced far more unknowns than knowns. Oberlin had yet to announce its three-semester schedule for the academic year, and staff turnover left us with a Wilder Voice crew of just three, to say nothing of the broader world-historic events occuring around us. We knew that our work would continue, but the form that that traditionally print-forward work would take was far from assured.
We decided to embrace these disruptions by looking backwards to Wilder Voice’s institutional past as we imagined how the magazine would operate differently this year. We set to work on a brand-new website to accommodate Oberlin’s mandated shift to online publication, and we began to reach out to former Wilder Voice editors to get a sense of what the magazine has meant to Oberlin’s community of writers and readers throughout its history. In September, we celebrated the launch of wildervoicemag.com. And with the new site, we began a new web-exclusive interview series, “Institutional Memory,” which explores the magazine’s past through conversations with former staff members.
We also modified our editorial process to give every piece we publish an even greater level of attention and care, and updated our style guide to make it more inclusive and up to date—adding in obligatory rules for pandemic-related terms like “Zooming,” for instance. This Editors’ Letter is itself a new addition to the magazine, a chance for us to tell you directly why we’re excited about this semester’s iteration of Wilder Voice.
All of these changes have been made so that we might better pursue Wilder Voice’s primary goal: providing Oberlin students with a space for true stories. And this issue marks some of the magazine’s most intimate pieces yet: Fiona Warnick dives deep into her personal relationship with shopping malls and the gender politics they imply (“Me, The Mall, And I”); Mary Brody discusses living in a house with three visual artists and speaks with her roommates about their work (“Visual Processes”); and Aniella Day shares a moving account of the death of her brother, who would have graduated from Oberlin this spring (“AIDEN”).
It feels trite, at this point, to invoke the coronavirus pandemic in a note of this kind, but it feels equally dishonest to ignore it. It’s simply a fact of Oberlin life, one we tacitly acknowledged every day this fall as we attended masked meetings in large rooms and did our level best to stay present and focused over Zoom calls. None of the works you’ll find in this issue take COVID-19 as their direct subject, but none of them elide it, either. They remind us that although the pandemic remains foundational to our daily lives, the way that it is experienced is far from monolithic.
Now, as always, stories are unfolding, and they deserve to be shared. As the coronavirus has narrowed public life considerably, those stories have only become more personal. To say that they are stronger for it would be to impose a specious silver lining on a global tragedy which has, at press time, killed over 1.5 million people—many of them already marginalized. But, in the midst of the bizarre social circumstance we are enduring, telling stories remains as meaningful as ever.
So welcome to the 30th issue of Wilder Voice. We hope that the time you spend here will be as rewarding for you as it has been for us.
—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice
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.
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.