By: Yu Yan
Smith College, MA, USA
Now we are flowing
in between w a v e s of thin satin that dance in the sky,
like a leaf that
in the breeze
landing to sink into the earth
like baked clay
in the blazing sun
where pinwheels of rays
grow big enough to transform into a kaleidoscope of colors at night,
spreading purple velvet over us thick enough to heat our bodies
so it sparks flames so scarlet
as to catch the eye of a bull
that charges with a racing heart
to the march
of the drums
warning us about time
washing back to the ocean that provides
the w a v e s
to rock the boat
that carries us through life,
lifted by the w i n d s that toss
our s o u l s back into the sky.
The place where I am living tries to tell the story of my life so far. It does not hold memories.
It does not yet hold memories.
But that is okay. I breathe that down and trust that the memories will come.
I do not feel God here. I do not yet feel God here. I trust that she will speak through this place. But, so far, she only speaks through home. What does that mean about God? What does that mean about home?
The story of my life told by this place that barely knows my name sounds like the girls laughing in the hall upstairs while I do homework. It is told through my daily naps and the photos on the wall that spell out “CLE.”
This place does not know me yet. Still, she will tell you that I was the first person to visit her archives this year. “That was all I needed to know,” she says with a smile.
This place has only held me for forty-three days, but she has heard all of my secrets through the window of a psychologist’s office on Main Street. This place tells the story of my brokenness, but she didn’t do any of the breaking.
She did not yet do any of the breaking.
This place does not wipe away my tears, but she does absorb them. She calls to a city far away and tells her to bring tissues. When this place where I am living tells my story, she holds out her hands to show you the tears as they pool in her palms, but Cleveland has already wiped them up.
This place tells you that I don’t sing much, but she is lying. She knows that she is lying because, although she cannot hear my voice, she can feel how much I miss it.
This place where I am living cannot tell my whole story.
This place where I am living cannot yet tell my whole story.
But she waits.
We are both waiting.
I am not sure whether I am recalling a dream or reality. I don’t know whether to use the past tense or present; I don’t even know whether she has left or still remains. I just remember that, when I first saw her, she reminded me of Greek statues– the ones that my father showed me in children’s encyclopedias. Yes, her skin tone made me feel like she was molded out of bronze. Even her hair had this bronzeish tint.
Maybe she was a classical Greek statue given life by Phanes.
Yes, it seemed reasonable back then. Why not? I used to fall asleep hearing about Pinocchio, who was made out of wood and could still walk and talk, so why not her? I don’t recall her name. I doubt anyone does. I will take the blame for that; I will take it all. The only thing that I remember is that, when she left, she took away all happiness. When she came back, she was not the same. She was invisible at times, but she was there. I can tell you she was, and she still is.
Now, she exists in a different way. She is in me. I don’t know how she got inside, but she is there. Usually, she prefers residing somewhere in the back of my head. No, don’t imagine something like Voldemort growing out of Professor Quirell’s head. It is nothing like that. Instead, it is like the residence of two souls in one body– a tired body, tired of the burden of carrying oxymoronic souls; tired to be the venue of the battle between two powerful entities that having juxtaposing ideas. I call them Yin and Yang. Those two never rest; neither do they give the luxury of rest to my body, engaging in their continuous fight for control over that territory. My body tries its best to support its authentic soul, Yang. It works hard and harder, even when it feels like each and every cell will fall apart from exhaustion and scatter on the ground. Yet, it cannot sleep; it cannot afford to sleep. If it dares to do so, Yin takes over through dreams.
All I remember from those dreams is that they depicted blood, a lot of blood. Those dreams were different. I would know when they started, and I would wake up– or, maybe not. The worst part was that I wouldn’t understand whether I was awake or asleep; whether I was in a dream or reality. Later, after what seems like decades, Yang wakes up. It doesn’t take control, no. It merely begins to exist again. My body starts feeling sheer pain, and evil pleasure graces my mind. Yang tries to radiate a bit of sympathy and instantly is mocked by Yin. Whipped by Yin’s cruelty and confined in a space no bigger than a full stop, it becomes hard for Yang to even breathe properly. Hopeless, Yang thinks of giving up. Yang begins removing all of those memories that were treasured and protected, that were all Yang ever had.
That bronze body, that bronzish hair, and all of those good things about her unfold.
A spark strikes Yang; she can’t let go of the memories, and neither can she let Yin corrupt them, for these are hers to treasure.
Yang murmurs, “If I die, who will remember you? ”
Yang holds on…
her eyes, gray pools still and smooth
for a second there is fear.
anger. pain. her memories
dance behind the glass betraying
her for a second I can almost see her scars
the shutters snap shut and she
is a steel statue that will never shatter
her voice, kind and always
laughing, a little too loud a little too
often a little too forced, with words
that get stuck in her throat she swallows
them like rough rocks and keeps her
secrets safe for another day
her skin, pale like winter with soft lines
and creases and freckles in clusters and splatters
and trails, she wears the stories that have changed
her smell is like perfume and powder and
coffee from the cup that is always in
her hands, smaller than mine with
knuckles a little too large “from cracking them,”
she said, “so stop cracking yours”
they aren’t beautiful but they don’t need to be
she’s built walls a million miles tall around
her heart, big enough to save the whole world
but too broken to save the ones who matter most
in a million moments and a million ways I am
her eyes her voice her skin her hands her heart
and that’s OK.
And the last step was like a prologue, bringing you out of one experience and into a premature memory– still forming, and quite delicate– balanced on the edge of comprehension. You didn’t see it at first, and maybe that means it didn’t really exist, for what better quantifier do we have for the world than our own perception?
You’re right. It was never there. Not before you came.
You walked the border between field and forest, the world a confusion of rock and dry leaves. They crumbled to dust under your feet, releasing muscle memory into the air– necrotic tissue that was ordinary in life, beautiful in death, mundane in decomposition. There’s nothing special about this experience; hasn’t it all happened before? The world unfolds for you, and you nod your head; you’ve seen it all once, twice, a dozen times. You would call it home if you weren’t so naïve.
It’s almost close enough to be familiar, far enough to register some kind of boundary, some kind of other place. Another world. Facets of imagination stir in it until you come and see for yourself that it’s nothing more than another mile of woods, another messy composition of nature. Whiffs of death stir around your feet.
Today could just have easily collapsed in rain. But the sun shines softly, playfully, through the tender branches. Buds quiver on their tips, cautious in the spring air, wary and vulnerable as your next thought, giving gently to the breeze. That is your right half. Your left is leaking onto the field, over rubble stonewall fragments and goldenrod– those spindly grasses that you always called tumbleweeds even though Texas is thousands of miles away.
Are tumbleweeds found in Texas? You never thought to ask or check. It’s one of those things that you just take for granted because to question would be like asking which tree dropped the leaf that you just crushed underfoot.
Nothing unfolds before you. The path is as straight as the old wall, meandering on the boundary between uninhibited and inhibited light. Half of you is dappled, the other warmed by the sun and chilled by the breeze. You kick away the leaves and bring the experience to a close.
At the end of the road, the wall ends. You start to climb. It was always a bit of a climb, so subtle that only your eardrums could tell, but now the ground slopes so sharply you brace yourself as if the world has suddenly turned against you. Dry rivers dance in mesmerising swordplay at every other step, parrying and feinting around your toes. You stare for a moment, and then you continue.
There is hardly ever any time to watch.
Experience slides away, more vulnerable to gravity than you. It collects at the bottom of the hill, and you rise above it, both breeze and sun picking up to joust around you as you reach the summit. And there it is.
Rows of pink shoot away from you, shining with a brilliance that you remember but can never imagine. Branches scratch at the sky, and a trilling mixes with the atmosphere. It could be a bird, or an insect whose name you don’t know.
The peaches have yet to come. They wait, buried somewhere in the depths of the flowers that you now pass between, dragging their soft fragrance into your lungs, the long grass sweeping the leaf dust from your feet. For a moment you are just another blot of colour, a smattering of strokes on the Impressionist’s canvas as you stroll, wondering how you could have ever forgotten the dimensions of this place.
Once, you heard them call it Turtle Hill. You wonder who gave it the name. It could be a thousand years old.
Peach blossoms rule over the hill, and below them a court of apple trees tends to their every need, brilliant white against the weak grass, still recovering from winter’s touch. Some are older than you. Many are just beginning, striking out against the air, dealing in possibility. You sink down onto the cold ground.
Dew seeps into your clothes.
Maybe this is all there is. But we know that isn’t the case.
Maybe this is all there should be. Of course, no. But maybe.
Maybe this is all you ever wanted to find.
All of you have shells scarred
with the ravages of patriarchy
detailing old fights,
some of which you lost.
It was a world full of predators and struggle, so you learned
to live in your shells
Turtle women, you tell me to vomit my words onto the page
while you purse your closed lips.
Turtle women, you ask me to undress so you can fix me my broken body
while you stand there in your buttoned-up white coat and cashmere turtleneck.
Turtle women, you request my whole life story told in numbers and factoids
while you robotically type at your workstation.
You hide your true selves in the name of doing your duty.
In my parent’s living room, hidden in the pages of a dusty scrapbook,
there’s a picture of a bright-faced little girl staring
eye-to-eye with a turtle at the zoo,
separated by a piece of glass.
They teach us young feminists to smash glass ceilings,
but not how to speak through the glass walls that separate
us from you beautiful turtle women
Someday I’d like to walk with you,
to truly know you and understand the scars that roughen your shells and toughen your hearts.
But now I’ll just observe from the other side of the glass,
in admiration of beauty
The sound of raindrops banging on my metal roof startles me. It seems like they are trying to get inside of my house for shelter like someone looking for a safe place to hide from a mad dog. I simply ignore them, and soon the pitter-patter sounds fade from my consciousness. The rainy season in Myanmar has always been like this. Some kids may sing, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…,” but I sing, “Rain, rain, come! As long as you don’t get inside my house…”
When it rains, I like to press my face against the cold window and look at the pond behind my house. The raindrops that fall into the pond look joyous, unlike the angry raindrops on my roof. From the frame of my window, I can see those playful little raindrops descending from a vast sky, mirthfully playing a ‘run and catch’ game with the lotus leaves.
In the pond, there is a particular leaf with a heart shape that is trying to catch those raindrops. It has a soft curve resembling a motherly smile. As each raindrop lands on its surface, it bounces back off, and the lotus leaf patiently bends her stem while touching the ripples as if giving a friendly kiss. The leaf rises. Those mischievous raindrops could not have imagined what a happy day it was for the lotus leaf.
The loud thunder shatters my serene moment.
I bend my head towards the sound, but the only thing I see is the white light tearing the sky apart with sudden speed. Are thunder and the lighting bullying the raindrops that tried to get inside my house? Poor raindrops!
In the evening, the rain starts drizzling, now sounding like, “plop, plop, plop…,” as it falls into the pond. “Croak…Croak…Croak…” I hear a frog adding to the chaos.
When the rain comes to a stop, I go over to the pond. There is a crystal rain drop lying on a leaf, cozy like a baby held by its mother’s hands. The weight of the raindrop makes the fragile lotus leaf bend; she is trying her best to protect the raindrop from falling into the pond. The raindrop does not know how much trouble it has given her. The leaf never voices a single word. Rather, she watches over the raindrop with her caring smile. The raindrop has no worries. It trusts this place on which it landed, even though the leaf’s edge marks uncertainty.
When the breeze flicks the leaf, the raindrop starts wobbling. The leaf jiggles to keep the raindrop from falling, gently dancing like a mother does when singing a crying baby to sleep.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
As the leaf offers protection to the raindrop, my roof and windows protect me. From the rain, thunder, lightning, and cold, I am safe. I turn and look around my house, relieved to see that there are no punctured holes in my roof or windows. I turn my body back to the raindrop, saying, “What a lucky raindrop you are to fall onto this lotus leaf.” If the raindrop had fallen onto different leaves, or on the soil, it would have dissolved into them and become invisible. Unlike the soil and leaves, which absorb water, the lotus leaf resists water and allows the raindrop to hold its original shape: a mother’s blind love for her child’s imperfections.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
“Why did you drop from the sky, and gently lay yourself on the leaf? You sleep like you will be here forever.”
But, it doesn’t know. In a few seconds, the raindrop will have to be separated from the lotus leaf, like a mother has to leave her child one day. It is time for the little raindrop to experience how life can bring terrible things. I bend down and put my face to it, taking one last look before I tap the lotus leaf with my forefinger.
Oh Raindrop! Oh Raindrop!
As the little raindrop rolls off the palm of the leaf, I expect it to fall into the water immediately. Instead, the raindrop holds onto the edge– tenderly, as if begging the leaf not to let go. The lotus leaf holds on too. But what can they do? The force of life is stronger than their bond.
The leaf is a bit shaky from the weight of the hanging raindrop, like a sobbing mom cupping her face with both of her hands. Looking at them, I feel that holding onto each other is like walking on a slippery road, while letting go is like sliding on a slippery road. The lotus leaf tilts its stem towards the water and drops the raindrop into the pond with a ‘plop.’ A mother closing her eyes to let her teardrops roll away. The raindrop becomes a ripple. The raindrop is on its own, now.
The raindrop must flow with the current, become a lake, become a river, become an ocean, and go back to the sky.
Oh Raindrop… Oh Raindrop…
I miss my mom’s palms stroking my hair.
Within a world of your own making, you cannot stop growing. It should be unthinkable to be negligent towards any Experience and any Emotions that you go through, for all of them make you who you really are and will help you in the path of discovering yourself. Downplaying your emotions and experiences cannot lead to an understanding of self or, beyond that, an understanding of life. Owning them, instead, translates into a kind of proprietorship and can define how much you know yourself, as well as how you want the world to view you. These emotions that you have, and every memory you created of, from, and for them, tell your story– which you author. So own them. They are you. They speak of you as you speak of them.
Every wracking cry, with the loss of someone from life and earth, accompanied by grief and pain and clouds of sadness is you.
Your earthy smile, with pressed lips or not, the styling of which is yours only, is you.
Your raw laughter, loud and weird, oozing happiness and moments of joy, is you.
Your blazing anger when it doesn’t feel right, when you witness a wrong-doing, when you cannot fathom how something like that could possibly happen– that feeling of heat and anger is you.
And feelings of simple nothingness, when, simply put, you feel emotionless and numb– you feel nothing… that is also you.
The hundreds of other feelings that you encounter are valid in their own way. They are results of our experiences and our ways of life. How you ensure your emotional wellbeing and approach what you want to express depends solely on your interpretations of what life has to offer you. Connecting yourself to the warmth, tenderness, energy, and vibe of each emotion can make you realize what you are, who you are, and how you are you. Stop and consider that. It’s a cycle, really; your experiences turn to emotions, and your emotions turn to experiences. That’s natural, but it requires work to feel as though these emotions and experiences are yours.
So, as you make memories because of and for your emotions, jump into your experiences. Fully realizing the depth and length of your experience is hard work, but it can also be extremely easy. It takes inquisitiveness and interest; approachability; courage. It takes the feeling of being a free soul with an open mind, ready to learn and grow through experience.
Embrace your mind and memories; embellish your soul, and see how it all fits.
You and I? We define our lives and the experiences and emotions that come out of it.
When things are illuminated, life is beautiful. Luminosity is, indeed, a wonderful thing. You are anchored in your body, and that body is easy to please. You only have to honor the integrity of your senses. The bad smells bad, and the good is to be luxuriated in. You feel your senses acutely and realize that you were blessed with them because they make you into a deep participant in life. Others have their senses, too, and you share yours with them. Social intercourse is your way into earthly heaven. This is a difficult endeavor for some, and it makes peace of mind seem far from your grasp. So here’s to still fighting for that light. Some harder than others, it’s all part of what makes us different.
I often wonder if other people sit around thinking about what other people do. I often do. That sentence is as complicated as the thought process itself. I wonder if other people feel inexplicably distanced from everyone else, or even from themselves. It’s weird to think that you are a stranger to yourself, and yet that describes me. My feelings are mostly “fake news,” as Anna Akana has said on Youtube. It makes me unsure of what instinct to trust. Furthermore every human interaction is mediated by what the “norm” is and let’s be honest, most of us don’t fit the norm. So how do we know when we have actually connected, reached in and messed up someone else’s insides? Some philosopher, that I can’t remember the name of, said that the scariest discovery one makes is the discovery of the other, another just as complicated and capable. It is the most humbling discovery and yet it’s scary as shit. Basically… hell is other people.
So let’s get poetic for a minute, shall we?
Let me spew some feels…
Another breath taken is another chapter written in your book. You’ve been slapped in the face by rejection; tickled by success; whirled through the washing machine by indecision.
You have taken leaps of faith, only to fall a tad bit short and plummet into the soft, waiting darkness. People tell you: “You’re one year closer to your happy ending, buddy!”
Look around. Let all the destruction, all the grief, the sheer hopelessness in the world shatter your heart into a million crimson shards. Let that little beggar girl on the street make you want to crawl into bed and never go out again. You sit there with a cigarette in hand, trying to smoke this pain out. You look deep into her eyes, wondering how different they are from yours.
Let your tears soak your soul until you’re nothing but a tangled mess of nerves and veins and trembling sobs. Somehow sorrow and despair is so inviting; let sadness pull you into its warm, welcoming embrace and whisper sweet nothings in your ear.
Then glance up, and look at the sky. Instead of giving up on this dreadful race, the sun struggles to break through the horizon every damn day, just so we don’t cease to exist. That little beggar girl has a smile even more radiant than the sun. Feel the faint stirrings of hope yet?
Right about this time, pick up your phone and give happiness a quick missed call. Go hug anyone who makes you want to keep breathing. Drink a glass of reasonably strong alcohol, and try to taste the weightlessness. Feel it trickling through your throat and sprinkling your insides with life. Smile so hard that your lips go numb. Kiss another so much that you become one.
Just get off your bed and breathe in your beautifully flawed existence. If it’s a new day, you might as well make it happy.
At the end of the day, we are all just clumps of flesh filled with an endless pit of complicated feelings. I’m learning to not keep it all bottled up and just speak my damn mind. Experience all the bad and the good there is to feel. Never be afraid of being vulnerable.
Even the summer trees raise their branches high towards the sky in praise.
Even the autumn trees raise their frail, dead branches.
But I being ungrateful have none to praise.
Where Charlie Stevens came from, it was always fall or summer. In autumn, he would rake leaves from the rigid Southern roots of the oak out front. In summer, he would watch them wallow in heavy wind until dusk swept them out of sight. Sometimes he’d walk the dog or ride his bike into town, the music of foreign places and better times filling a void they entered the small holes in the sides of his ovular skull and replaced the church bells that he could never hear.
He never quite belonged there, but it never occurred to him to leave. He’d marry a Southern Belle who might be his high school sweetheart or Homecoming Queen— some bullshit of the sort that was written on cheap picture frames and scrawled across Hallmark cards. They’d have three children, though he didn’t like to plan— two boys, who would learn chivalry and sports from Charlie, and one girl, who would learn cooking and courtship from Cassie. They’d all be named with matching initials so the monogrammed bath towels could never be out of place (like he always was), and they’d walk to the same bus stop that Charlie walked to with his same vacant stare and his same piercing blue eyes that told you there was much more to his story than he wanted to share.
This wasn’t what he wanted, but it would have to do. His paintbrush was his ammunition to shoot his canvas full of fluid. They’d vacation by the seaside that would portray the same palette as his paint, and his Eckelburg irises of aquamarine would get swept up in sea glass and leave with the riptide. His mundane Daisy, eyes green with envy, would crave his papers of the same stain. He’d take his dad’s old job accounting, and his watercolor passion would fade out of sight like the waning summer sun.
One day he met a stranger unfamiliar with the smoothly paved roads that always looked and smelled of tangerines. Her comfort food was sushi. Instead of Dalmatians, she praised donkeys. She wore everything on her sleeve and had never dressed in Sunday best, never driven through fields of green where state lines bled into places where the people didn’t know who they were any more than he or she did.
He wasn’t quite sure who he was, though he did put on a compelling show of who he was not. He was blind to his imperfections, and when his classmates asked what was in his ears, he’d say a podcast from his pastor about painting pillars, burning bridges, and coloring inside of the lines.
He never cared for the pillars of his house. They were too white, too rigid, too expected, and not reliable enough to support the weight of the sorrows contained inside of their brick walls. Cobblestones were far too bumpy for his troubled, broken soul, so he’d take the rural path to school before anyone woke. He’d sit down by the banks of the swampy river thinking about that strange girl he met one day at the corner store.
She wasn’t quiet and was hardly polite, unlike his other suitors. When he eyed her by the produce, she was picking up peaches by the dozen and clutching Bertha Mason’s twisted fate to her mountainous chest. She was much more like Jane in terms of intuition and beliefs, but certainly not as plain or proper. Charlie stared as though she was an alien, his jaw agape. She wasn’t beautiful— or at least not according to the standards etched into his frontal lobe. Her eyes looked like the smell of the paved roads that led to nowhere, except that her tangerines were speckled with tints of brown and green. She brushed his cheek gingerly to close his mouth in fear that flies would swarm inside and infest his already rotting heart.
He never saw her again. But that didn’t stop him from pondering alternate realities in which he cooked her dinner and she held doors open for the children whom he never wanted. They would share politically charged badinage over dinner and wine, and never agree but never hold grudges. He would get the hell out of the maze of flags, where stars formed crosses instead of spangled rectangles, and go to Paris or Los Angeles or even Zanzibar. There would be nothing he wouldn’t do for a girl he’d never met, and he’d wander all over as long as no one knew his name.
None of it made sense, but not much did those days— like the saying “respect your elders.” His dad was gone with a flask in a flash of lightning when he was five and figuring out how to grow up. His mom’s new companion brought home big bucks but kept Charlie up at night with his mother’s whimpers shed the coming dawn into his morning cup of tea. And his mother just stood there, not saying a word because, where he came from, tongues stayed tied; it was “better that way.”
Conflict is to be avoided. No boy is to be raised without a father. Always hold the door. Always wear a collar. Etcetera, exhaustion, exhaling deeply, Charlie had broken each and every promise, and each and every rule–or so he thought. It was all his fault, he thought. He’d never be satisfactory to anyone broken enough to heal his open wounds, like the girl from the corner store.
He knew exactly where it rested and began tightening his tie, and as its chilled and wicked barrel breathed softly down his neck, he began thinking of other barrels. Of peaches and mangoes and leaves caked in dust, tangerine highways and roads radiating rust. So he picked up his paintbrush and reached for the green like the oak in summertime where the blue jays found light. Green fields, once indigo, turned congested and alive into a cityscape skyline peppered with posters of eyes.
The first time I saw the ocean, I was very little. For the first few weeks after I was born, my mother brought me to the beach to sway me to sleep. I immediately dozed off listening to the words of the waves and the whispers of the wind. My mother always told me salt water heals all wounds, even happy ones. Whether I just got up from being pushed to the dirt, or I was so happy that my heart opened, the ocean was always there to wrap me in sandy hugs and salty kisses.
I returned to the beach every summer with my family. We spent time on the shore, went to camp, and enjoyed each other’s company. Early in the morning, my mother would wake me up so we could bike to the beach. Around 5:00AM, she would sit me in the seat behind her and bike. We would arrive 30 minutes before sunrise. She always told me to listen to the waves while it was still dark outside. She reminded me that, sometimes, even though we can’t see each other, we must trust that the other is still there. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I learned to trust that it was still there. We then waited for the sun to rise in order to assure ourselves that, no, the ocean had not run away from us. It was our little promise.
When I turned 9, my grandfather passed away. I never quite understood the concept, I just knew that it was weird being at the beach club and eating lunch without him at our table. When my parents cried, I always reminded them, “You can’t see him, but he is still there.” Though it was a nice phrase, I still didn’t fully understand the idea of it. I was never taught the meaning of death. I didn’t understand why I no longer got calls from my grandfather about what food he got from the store, or the latest golf tournament that he won. I worried and wondered why he never showed up at my dance recitals. But I was satisfied knowing that, although I couldn’t see him, he was somehow still there.
When I was 11, I returned to the ocean. Things were a bit different. Each night, when I asked my mother to take me to the beach before sunrise, she would tell me that I could do it on my own. That was the summer when I learned how to bike by myself and climb the roof of the beach club to listen to the ocean waves in silence, trusting that it hadn’t run away after the sun had set. Every day when I returned from the beach, my mother asked me how it was since she was sad that she had missed it. When I got into deep descriptions of my day, she laughed. Though I didn’t know she was there, she had been sitting right on the top deck in a chair, watching over the waves and secretly watching over me.
I was 12 years old during the summer when I learned how to surf. I remember my mother giving me my first surfboard. She had grown up in California and knew a thing or two about catching a wave. One morning, I woke up to a huge foam board standing upright in my bedroom with a letter on it. It read, “Just go with the flow.” I quickly slipped on my bikini and wetsuit and drove to the beach. I spent days and days trying to catch the perfect wave, but every time I stood up, I fell right over. Finally, I gave up. The thought of going with the flow seemed nearly impossible, and I decided it was time to move on.
On the first day of August, I was laying on the beach watching my friends catch waves. After some time, I decided it was time to pull my board out once more. I ran to my locker, slipped on my wetsuit, picked up my surfboard, and headed back for the beach. There was something different about it this time. With the letter from my mother that stated, “Just go with the flow” still at the back of my mind, I headed for the water with a positive outlook. After just a couple of tries, I was able to get up and ride the wave. It was amazing. Something about it got me thinking. I thought about being far out in the ocean and trying to catch a wave. How, after every wave I caught, I was always taken back to land. I thought of my mother: how, every time I felt lost and alone, she was always there to bring me home. No matter how far out I was, I was always able to catch a wave that brought me home.
When I was 13, I saw the ocean once more. It was my thirteenth summer returning, yet somehow each time felt different. This was the year that I lost my best friend. This was the year when I began to hate the phrase, “Just ‘cause you can’t see her doesn’t mean she isn’t there.” I knew she wasn’t there. Each morning, my mother would check on me. Every now and then, she would wake me up and insist that I bike to the beach with her before sunrise to listen to the waves. After a couple mornings of stubbornly pulling my covers over my head, I finally gave in. At this point, I understood the science around the idea that the ocean can’t actually run away after sunset, so I listened for other messages.
The next summer led up to my new beginning. After a full year of trying so hard to get along with the students around me, I decided that enough was enough and applied to Miss Porter’s School. Going into the summer, I was a bit nervous. I had never gone to an entirely new school with people from, not only across the country, but around the world. When I was accepted to Porter’s, my mother told me one thing: “Widen your horizons.” Each evening, we stayed at the beach until sunset. With the sun setting partly along the ocean, but also across the houses of the neighboring town, my mother would remind me of this quote. I often spent all day staring at the ocean right in front of me, but I never took the time to understand the things around it. I never took much time looking far down the shore to my right or left, or even look at the number of houses lining the dunes. With every sunset came another reminder to widen my horizons and appreciate what I have around me.
In my 16th summer, I realized that there wasn’t much of a way to make sense of it all. Each year led up to a new little phrase that I ended up living by. This was the summer when I began to sleep in and get to the beach around midday. This was also the summer when I learned how to catch about every wave. I no longer reminded myself to “go with the flow” when I couldn’t catch one. I no longer had to assure myself with the little phrases that I carried through my everyday during previous summers. When I woke up, I woke up. When I surfed, I surfed. On the days when I remembered the phrases that my mother and I shared, I was lucky enough to look up to the top deck of the beach club and see my mother sitting right there with her glass of iced tea looking out at the ocean, though I knew–now–that she was secretly watching over me.
Last semester I wrote a research paper for my First Year Seminar, Educating Women at Home and Abroad. The paper was about women’s education in ultra orthodox Jewish society in Israel, the Haredim. What I found struck me because the Haredim have created a Jewish world that is so different from mine. The life I lead as a Jewish woman is unlike the lives these Haredi Jewish women lead in a society conceived around strict formations of culture and customs, all centered around Judaism.
Reflecting on this paper as well as my life as a Jewish woman at college, I thought about how two Jewish women can have drastically different experiences. It was fascinating to learn how women in the Haredi society are educated with their societal roles as mothers and wives in mind. These women are educated within the insular sphere that is the Haredim, keeping their society intact. As a Jewish woman myself, it was striking to study how these women’s educations are so rooted not only in their religion, but the specific place they hold in their society. Education in these two societies plays very different roles, especially in the way it is formatted to relate to women.
Growing up in the American educational system, Judaism was so divorced from my formal education. I grew up in two worlds, the public school system and a Jewish community learning about Jewish culture, customs, and religion. Judaism in my life signified a community that practices similar customs rather than a structural way of life. Judaism for me is a way of connecting with people, while also partaking in traditions, rather than a type of law. The divergence of my Jewish experience from other women’s experiences speaks to the diversity of the roles religion plays in people’s lives.
As the person with the honor of writing the first staff blog post, I thought I’d share this poem I wrote at the beginning of this school year, which I feel encapsulates the unique nature of the adventures of being a student at a women’s college. Less than a hundred days away from my graduation, I’m appreciating my Smith experience more and more, and I’m so going to miss this women’s college environment.
Sweat-soaked and scalp-strained
from hot days and high buns,
we are drawn to the river,
after dinner, after dark.
The path is smooth; we need no flashlight
the moon is a crescent; it peers through the leaves.
Clothes shed, shoes kicked,
our toes sink into silt
we slip underwater,
icecold and sweet.
The river is smooth; there is no current
the moon is a voyeur; it makes our skin shine.
Skin cooled, clothes dripping
from our blissful solution,
we walk home without towels
Drips in the night.
The pavement is smooth; there are no potholes
the moon is a classmate; it laughs in the sky.
Welcome to the seventh edition of the Voices & Visions Literary Journal, themed “Environments.” It is an exciting time for our journal; in the last year, we expanded our submission pool to include alumnae who attended women’s educational institutions worldwide. In addition, we reached readers in 111 countries– over half of the world– with the help of publicity from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem (Smith College ‘56), and Ms. magazine, the first mainstream feminist magazine produced in the United States.
As our readership grows, so does our editorial staff. We are thrilled to welcome three Smith College first-years to our team: Aviva Green, Abby Westgate, and STRIDE student Faith de Castro. Past Voices & Visions contributor Faizah Aziz Aditya, a senior at the Asian University for Women, located in Bangladesh, also joins our staff as an international assistant editor.
It is a privilege to not only share the works of women around the world, but to work with a growing team of women who make this publication possible. This fall, our staff found “Environments” a uniquely interdisciplinary theme, connecting politics, landscape studies, and stewardship with issues of home, change, and travel. Contributors’ works inspired us to think of the ways in which our surroundings, familiar or new, are ever-evolving– constructed by us, the people who comprise them. They are fluid rather than static; vulnerable more than dependable. It is our responsibility to honor their strength and their fragility– to use our voices and execute our visions for the environments in which we live.
But what is an environment? Is it physical? Emotional? What of our communities exist apart from us? And what of them are projections of our own internality?
This issue offers twenty-one written and visual works that interpret, observe, and critique that which surrounds. Our spring issue, which you can submit work for here, will concern transitions.
Brittany Collins, Editor-in-Chief
Beth Derr, Managing Editor
on behalf of the Voices & Visions editorial staff