It is nine o’clock the night before this is due and I’m just finally settling into the chair in the back corner of my house and opening a new document. You would think if I had learned anything in high school it would have been to plan ahead, to manage my time, to not procrastinate as badly as I do— I can’t help but smile into the steaming mug of tea clutched between my hands and chuckle at my self induced sleep deprivation.
I think as good as my intentions always are to get ahead, to study hard, to plan and manage like a perfect student, reality often comes up short and I end up either depressingly disappointed in myself or hyped up on about four shots of caffeine the next morning. It’s not that I don’t care about school or I don’t have the motivation to do any of it either, I really do. Every single day I sit through classes with my mind whirring on and on about what exactly it is I’m going to do when I get home. And usually these plans include grandiose study ideas along the likes of making a timeline for the entire US history course that I could stretch across the wall in my room and add to with post-its and sharpie as the year progressed or reading through the Bible as a piece of literature so that I might finally understand all the allusions that are made to it or maybe even drawing a life-sized skeleton on my mirror and labeling every one of those 206 bones it includes. I have all the good intentions of a closeted over-achiever, but when reality takes the wheel I end up where I am now, rubbing my eyes and staring at a computer screen during the wee hours of the night.
As much as I’d like to go back in time and do those things hand in hand with whatever class they pertained to, I know I can’t. And even if I could, I probably wouldn’t. I’d go back and end up doing just as much as I had to do, all the same things I had done before, while still daydreaming up elaborate ways to learn on my own which I would ultimately end up forgoing for an afternoon with my friends, the Daily Show, or more likely than not, nothing, nothing but sitting around and staring off into space for several hours.
But you know, that’s ok! In fact, that’s more than ok, that’s exactly what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t supposed to spend my summers reading textbooks or teaching myself calculus or memorizing Robert Frost poetry like I promised myself I would, I was supposed to spend them sizzling under the sun like a chicken on a spit, which is what I actually did. I think what I’ve come to realize is that high school education is not designed to be complete, it is designed to be introductory. We’re not aiming for depth here, we’re going for width. How many different subjects can you weed your way through? How many will you pursue later on? Really, to me it’s a foundation to kick off of. You’ve got to start building somewhere, and high school is just that beginning.
Now that I know that, I’m not quite so disappointed for not yet having read Common Sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Federalist Papers; it’s not the the end of the world just because I haven’t seen the photos from Riis’ How the Other Half Lives or researched all the many criticisms and commendations of string theory. It is enough that I learned of them in my high school classes and have been infused with the appreciation for them such that I can do all of those things post high school. So yes, I guess I can say I have learned what I wanted to; in four years we’ve graced the tops of almost everything I thought I would. My expectations instead falter in how deeply we learned each of those pieces. It seems like we’ve only been scratching at the surface even when I wanted nothing more than to gouge right into the material, although in retrospect, it’s probably better that way. I couldn’t have wanted to learn all these things if I hadn’t been given small “tester-sized” portions of them in class. And I think that’s the best thing I’ve gotten out of high school; not necessarily learning the material, but discovering it, and somehow still wanting more.
Throughout the years, one of my biggest struggles has been grappling with the differences between learning and education. As a child, I thought it was the same thing. But as I grew up, the two seemed to grow apart and more often I found myself sitting on the side of “learning” while watching my education go by, maybe not as successfully as I would have liked. Eventually it got to a point where I was so humbug about education (I can do this on my own, I’ve learned so much and look where it shows? Nowhere! Why should grades motivate me when they don’t even reflect what I know? You can’t tell me what to learn!) that I phooeyed it away entirely and decided that education was solely responsible for getting in the way of my learning, that it was a waste and I could live without it as long as I continued to learn on my own.
Ok, so that was a little extreme. But I think I had to see it like that for a while so that I could realize how wrong I was. Yes so learning is my first and only love, but education is like the buddy that got us acquainted in the first place. My heart will always be in the learning, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the education. At this point in my life, education has simply been that little push, that hand directing me towards a particular passion without pursuing it for me. From what I know of college, that changes a bit, I’ll be able to pursue what I choose and how I want to, though still the education is only the direction, not the full action. But in the meantime I’m really excited about taking the upcoming year off because I’ll finally have an opportunity to really immerse myself in the subjects I’m most entertained by— history, humanities, yes and physics (don’t ask me why I love it, I just do). And instead of being pointed towards a particular assignment and told that I need it to get some meaningless, phantom grade or other, I’ll finally have the chance to find my footing and forge my own path. Wow that sounds cliche, but really, for an entire year I can make all of my own decisions regarding what I should learn and how (I’m probably going to start with that US history timeline thing because… because I said so, how about that?).
Ok, I can’t just wave it all away like that. I did learn a lot of valuable things in high school. Not always on the education end of things, but in general. Hell, I wrote my whole graduation speech on the lessons I’ve gotten from high school; I learned how to search for myself, how to fall, how to try and try again, and I learned how to be. That’s an eloquently vague way of putting it, but I’ve just learned so much about myself and the world that I don’t want to put constricting boxes around it all. Surprisingly though, I think the most valuable lesson I learned was how to fall, and fall hard. Unfortunately, there’s more than one instance of this from the past four years, but I think the most poignant one was from the end of sophomore year because that was the time I fell all on my own, without being knocked over by some family problem or other. That was my problem, my mess, my madness and if I’m being quite honest here, watching it spill out all over everything and trying to clean it up? It sucked. A lot.
I think it began around the time I realized I wasn’t naturally good at Algebra 2 like I had been with Geometry. I probably should have worked harder, but all the homework assignments coupled with what seemed like a thousand other homework assignments for other classes— yeah, I felt buried alive. In quicksand. With great heavy bags of “insecurity” and “guilt” strapped to my ankles. I think the most characteristic quality of this whole time period was confusion, I was confused about who I was, what I wanted, and what I was doing here on earth. I felt like a complete failure, falling down, down, down (oh and did I mention I was also falling painfully and deeply in love for the first time in my life? That was not nearly as pleasant as they show it to be in the movies). But I’m so incredibly, oddly grateful for it. If anything, it shook me awake and taught me how to claw my way back up by finding strength where I didn’t know any to exist. And I’m pretty sure that out of everything I’ve learned— how to use the quadratic formula, calculating bmi, critically analyzing a passage— pulling myself together is going to be used most.
I’ve tried almost every method in the book to put myself back on track; music, jogs, singing, volunteer work, blogs, playing piano, novels, hikes, art, writing. I’d like to think that depression has made me a decently well-rounded, interesting human being. Silver linings, I suppose. But what has been the most important to me, at least consistently, has been writing. I can’t stop myself from writing most times, and I end up scribbling blurbs of poetry into the margins of all my notebooks. My walls are covered in butcher paper and slabs of balsa wood to catch all the words I throw onto them. I’ve made it somewhat of an art project; I experiment with font and typeface and notice how beautifully letters stack on top of one another. People ask me why my walls look like that, but I can’t imagine writing for any other purpose than because I have to. Because I like the way different words convey different things, but sometimes you can use the same words because it sounds pretty or feels right, and that’s really the only way I write, by instinct, by what feels right coming out of my black pilot G-2 pen. I think it’s always been like that for me, I wrote my first “story” when I was seven just for the heck of it. I don’t need any other motivation than myself.
I think that’s another important thing that I’ve learned; self-reliance (thank you, Emerson). This year especially, I’ve been given the independence I’ve felt all along and I’ve simultaneously come to a point where I actually really like the person I am. Going through high school I spent so much of my time hating myself and worrying about what everyone else thought of me. But here we are at the end, and I no longer care who likes me (or hates me, for that matter), because I like me, and that’s the only approval I need. Again, this sounds cliche, but I’ve gone over this in my head several times and I don’t know how else to express it. I’m really excited about moving on from high school, because I can see how much of a grasp I’ve got on my identity these past few years. Now it’s up to me, and only me, to decide who exactly I am and how I want to continue my life.
Nothing cleans out your mind quite like the salt spray of the ocean,
the consistent waves drowning out the sounds of your worries
and the strong tides shifting and shaking the doubts out
from right under you. You can count on it.
Count on the sea to filter your thoughts, sift through the muddled madness
and pull only serenity, peace, contentment from its depths.
Well if sugar-coating is false sweet talk born of exaggeration,
then salt-coating is genuine simple talk, unmasked, only magnified
and real. As real as the salty swells in my mouth, as real as the current
of the ocean waves, as real as the sand wrapping around my sinking
feet, and the sea simultaneously burying me and saving me.
Why should I resort to writing fiction when reality is already so full? It’s brimming over the rim of what is comprehensible and sloshing onto the sidewalks below, the ones where thoughts and imagination take daily strolls. But it’s all still the same element, the same droplets of overflowed reality stuck on pavement like the gum on your shoe. Pesky and negligible, but once sweet, once tasteful.
It’s interesting to see which facts get forgotten, become fiction snatched up by passerby, because they were deemed unnecessary to hold safe in the vat of life above. Reality can’t hold onto everything, no matter how hard it tries. The weary woman at the dry cleaner, not a word of English flushed in her mouth and yet an armful of chores, of work, of realities to sort through. Her broken heart, her hidden diary penned in foreign tongues and etched with his name and hers intertwined in a paper heart, that is a reality that is thrown to the street. Life can only hold so much at a time. Her story is one of thousands, forget it. Let it go.
The meth addict held down by struggling guards, her brittle hair, her mangled body harpooned by streams of poison. Her reality is a rehabilitation center with sterile checkered floors, sterile white walls, sterile countertops and cabinets. They see her corpse, her living corpse, breathing, screaming, fighting in the hallways, but no one knows she once lived in a children’s home— a prodigy girl with an affinity for chemical science, she kept her dreams high even from the very bottom. It wasn’t til pressure cracked in her sophomore year at Brown University and she felt inclined to place herself according to her existence. Illegitimate, forgotten, lost.
And the boy in the hospital, age seventy-two, but his mind is no better than a six year old’s; he throws fits over television shows and asks for his blankie, but the world forgot his valiant fathering. Reality tipped out his years of cradling his daughters wilting head, researching ailments, staying up at night to bring books, make up stories, keep her dreaming. He buried her at 16, a long, slow, drawn-out death, a short, quick, abrupt life. The world has forgotten the story, and so has he, now twenty-eight years later.
You see, to write fiction would be a misjudgment in this already crowded world. There are stories enough as is, puddles on the ground, little torn memories littered on the floor. They are waiting to be reborn as fiction, though they were once someone’s reality, someone’s story. Forgotten now. Until a writer, as only writers can, brings it to life once more.
“Seriously, can I drive?” she half-jokingly said from the passenger seat— one hand reaching to cover her face, the other tensely pressed into his leg.
He jerks the vehicle to the left, centers it again on that decomposing two lane road and chuckles. “What am I going to run into? There’s nothing around for miles!”
They both liked it that way, seeming to be alone in the world agreed with them like the sun in the rearview. She gave him a sideways smile, the kind that said “you’re right, but so am I,” and sighed.
They loved the way that great big green Ford rattled through the seemingly vast and empty countryside, crackling old cassettes constantly switched out on the dash. A journal for her, some Steinbeck for him. He’d read to her the passages he found to be worth reading when they stopped every now and again at roadside fruitstands or gas stations. She’d read the words she was most proud of, the little poems she claimed were ready to be heard.
Some would say they were content like that, but still their internal sadness would stain the pages they read from until the words were just as meaningless as their daily drives. They were alone, but never lonely— they clung to each other’s faults like they were their own, because looking at the other was like looking into a mirror.
Beneath their skin laid the same desire for company but fear of relation, the same burning passion for life but also the terror of it, and they both saw, with sadness, the same happy things And they both saw, with a certain kind of shared intellectual artistry, the beauty in tragedy.
So I loved from the seat across the room;
silent, still, passive love that didn’t touch
didn’t speak, didn’t see or hear— only felt.
Radiant, out my pores and spilling into the air.
Diffusion maybe— ripping love from the sinews
and fibers of my being, filtered through
a membrane of sweaty skin until released
into the loveless, murky air. The air you sit in,
the air you breathe, the air going into my lungs
and coming out of yours, all blending together
into a steam of you, me, and droplets of quiet lust,
silent surrender, passive love filling the spaces between.
Haven’t eaten in days,
words taste repulsive on my dry tongue and
the thought of swallowing them, digesting them
makes knots in my stomach like balled up fists
prepared to fight whichever letters come nearest.
You had to force feed me the alphabet,
shoved tasteless grammar down my throat
and tipped back an entire glass of punctuation—
just to keep it all down.
But I still cringed, my eyes welled with tears
of unnamed emotions, wordless feelings
I show accidentally, even in my refusal to tell.
It is not until the sun has sunk in the sky
and the moon has finished his own weary trek to the other horizon
that the magic, the solitude, the surreality begins.
When I have no company, no sun to watch over,
no moon to sympathize, no human to react—
my soggy mind, waterlogged and sluggish from sleep deprivation
will spin wild fantasies and entire new worlds
just to make sense of the senseless,
and draw up infinity from nothing.
My dear, I hope you know I do not wait.
I will never wait for another while I have my own life to live.
But as fate would have it, I can’t be with another,
not when I know I could spend that very same time
waiting for you
and instead feel twice as loved, twice as lonely,
but still in determined pursuit of better timing.
Until then, I will stand mildly by and smile each time you pass,
nod my head when words will not suffice,
and know that love boils deep within both of our veins.
The bottle’s back,
spilled on its side under the kitchen sink,
supposedly hidden but poisonously present.
I can see straight through the distorted glass bottom
into your sinking eyes, contorted by furtive drops of venom
shamefully sipped from a concealing ceramic mug.
It’s a secret we all know, one we’ll never confront.
We turn a cheek as you burn through promises
and we pretend the quitting course is all on track.
Twelve steps forward, and then twelve right back.
Aw wow I’m surprised someone remembered all of that about me! (who are you?) Thank you so so much for the direct compliments, and just remembering, which is a huge compliment in and of itself!
I did in fact get into Warren Wilson, but I deferred for a year. I’m taking a gap year instead, for many reasons. Mostly because I feel burnt out on the institution of education. For me, I go to school to learn and nothing else, I’m not grade driven (unfortunately shown in my pathetic GPA) or test driven or credit driven or anything, yet I’m still in rigorous classes because, well, I love to learn. But after 15 years of it, I feel like I’m dragging my feet more and more, so I think a year’s break will regenerate my need for knowledge so that when I go to college the following year, I’ll be going for all the right reasons.
So that’s the primary point of taking a gap year for me, but a lot of people get kind of nervous when I say that and warn me that I have to go to college at some point. I think people are worried that if I take one year off, I’ll just never end up going, but because I know I intrinsically love learning, there’s not a doubt in my mind that I will go the next year.
There are other, very concrete reasons though, too. My parent’s divorce is still in the final stages, so if I wait a year for them to be legally divorced, I will get a helluva lot more financial aid. Plus, my mom, sister, and I are in the process of selling the house and moving up north, so it will be a lot easier on the family if I stay a little while longer to grow some roots in our new home.
That all said, my plans for what to do with my year are extravagant, ridiculous, and oh my goodness I can’t wait! I feel like this may be one of my few chances to travel and see and do things without being tied to anything— no relationships, no school, no work, no mortgage, no family of my own— I can truly do whatever and be whoever I want.
My biggest dilemma is of course, financing my whims, but in some ways, pinching pennies is what makes things more fun! So first off, I’m cutting off all my hair (I’m going pixie-short) and selling it (yes, people do that) so that I can afford an Amtrak US railpass. I can get about $400 for my hair, astoundingly, and a railpass costs approximately the same.
My original plans were to go to India for several months and volunteer with women’s rights and education programs, but with everything that’s been going on there and costs (just the plane to get there and back is about $2,500), that didn’t seem so logical. (Though if any rich person wants to adopt me or something, I really wouldn’t protest)
But no matter, I’m still going to have a kick ass time in the states, being a vagabond, backpacking, doing oddjobs along the way for a meal here and there. It will be exciting and adventurous! And I guess I’m just going to sort of make it up as I go :)
We sat watching the evening descend on our mountain,
twilight kissing each peak and crawling into the crevices
between each boney rock, to sleep for the night,
The warm night air swirling with the smoke from the burning sage,
glowing from its place in the folky owl shaped ceramic mug.
We whispered memories that melt with the smokey air
memories of my childhood, of her motherhood
Eras that never die, living, breathing still
in our interlaced fingers lying atop her lap.
Maybe I’m too young, still, to feel nostalgia
as I remember cheery screams in the backyard
on the swingset, running this way and that— grinning, childish.
But I feel those simple memories washing over me,
drenched in the subtly summery night— ordinary, perfect.
I can feel Momma’s laugh as Liv and I mix delectable mudpies
in the make believe kitchen out back, I feel her warmth
as she pretends to eat one and sends her compliments to the chef.
Our tiny fists clutched around the feathers we found in the craft drawer,
we run up the slide and commence “flying lessons”— jumping, squawking.
Momma reached for her camera, smiling from the sidelines,
I can feel each click of the camera shutter, photo albums full of clicking.
Every silly, fantasy moment, mother stood by— smiling, happy.
I feel her beside me now, still smiling at the surroundings,
taking in the growing darkness blanketing the mountain that has stood
as the backdrop of an entire era; her almost grown daughter,
me, next to her. It is silent— ordinary, perfect.
Pride tells me to cover them
to hide them like an addict,
fearful of judgement—
don’t want to be known.
My secrets, my scars, my stories
buried under security, stability, sanity.
Pride tells me to hide them
like a stubborn child with a candy stash
Sh! Don’t tell momma. It’s my secret
to love and to cherish. But also
to hoard. Savagely, lovingly.
I want to hate these remnants of battle
spelled out on my arms
but I can count each one as if named
I’ve grown around them, with them
they are just as much a part of me
as the toes sprouting off my feet.
Little divots in my skin,
regretful, memorable, necessary.
So pride also tells me to display them
imperiously. To hold my hands high and say
This was me. Look where I am now.
Only scars, only scrapes now
fading into the background
of who I have become, who I have grown
from the seeds sown in my flesh.
Free, finally. Look at me.
Outline my history and see that
This is me— unhidden, uncovered,
*in other news: I have been harm-free for over 6 months, and I didn’t even realize it til now. Guess I’m just too busy being happy.
You never wake up with the expectation of evacuating later that day, of watching your town go up in flames and smoke hover ominously in the ash filled sky. Neighbors gathered in the streets, nervous, anxious, fearful. Sirens punctuating each gasp and heat rolling off the hills.
I woke May 2 slowly, comfortably— it was a late start day for the seniors due to STAR testing. A groggy morning spent in a haze of ease, flipping the pages of my Steinbeck novel and lazily picking at my scrambled eggs, my only thoughts revolved around Doc in old Cannery Row.
My friend sauntered in around 8:30 a.m., mumbling about confusion with the late start schedule. We mentioned the fire that had started that morning in Camarillo Springs, but only in passing. It didn’t effect us. Not then. Not yet.
Our concern was getting to school. 9:40 we had to be there but at 9:30 a phone call proved otherwise: we never went.
They said the school had been canceled due to air quality concerns from the fire, no mention of the flames licking the mountains within visible distance. The request was that all students who were not yet at school did not come. Meanwhile, the students in testing were quickly ushered into air-conditioned classrooms and told to go to their second period class, if they felt so inclined.
We hung up the phone tentatively, dazed, a smile widening over each of our faces. A fire day? We’ll take it! I pushed myself up onto the kitchen counter and kicked off my shoes; no tests, no homework, nowhere to be. We were more relaxed now than we had already been.
A text from a friend: smoke plumes. An instagram post from another: more smoke plumes. Sure it looked scary, but it was also exciting. At the time, we described it as “apocalyptic” “big” “woah,” but in retrospect, that was only the beginning, so small, so insignificant. Our smiles wavered but didn’t die.
My sister called from the school, “They’re telling everyone to go home, we can see the flames from the school. Can you pick me up at Trader Joe’s?” Frantic, dashing, excited, concerned. I grabbed the keys, my purse, my friend, my mom. Out the door, down the street, curious, terrified. My mom shook in the passenger seat, mad with worry, harshly barking at my driving and cringing at the sight of smoke.
Unreal. Never have I seen so many cars on Lynn, down Reino, across Borchard. Never have traffic laws been so unheeded so deliberately. Never have I witnessed so many cars stopped, phones out, photos snapping. Never have I imagined my town in the grips of a fire, flames edging along the outskirts; tall, hot, deadly, here.