Growth Mindset Through Life Lessons
There has always been a great debate between formal education and life lessons. The things that you learn from experience are the ones that stick with you and are not soon to be forgotten. No one can argue the necessity of formal education and the liberties it provides those who can work hard to attain their degrees. I’m a great example of hypocrisy; my argument for this paper is that life lessons are the best form of education. Well, what am I doing in college? Having experienced life for the last 20 years without a formal education, I realized that life is much more difficult without a degree to back up your experience. Formal education will allow me the potential to secure the career of my choice for my given passion. The degree demonstrates my determination and motivation to reach my goals to a potential employer and myself. Both life lessons and formal education have strong arguments about which is better than another. Experience is the best teacher, and the best education for me has come from my life lessons and my abilities to grow.
In the book Mindset The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., the author attempts to understand and explain how people deal with failure. In her book, she categorizes responses and views on loss into two different mindsets, the fixed and growth mindsets. She defines people with a fixed mindset as believing that everything that they are, their successes in life, their intelligence, their morals are fixed and cannot be changed. Individuals with the growth mindset are defined as a person that believes the basics of who you are can all be changed with effort and hard work. As a result of 30 years of research, Dweck has identified that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” (6). Upon reading the author’s views on the two mindsets, I realized that I had a fixed mindset during my childhood. I thought that my intelligence, my personality, and my moral character were all qualities that couldn’t be expanded upon, and I would be limited due to these abilities. These thoughts and the limitations of this mindset greatly affected my choices upon graduating high school.
Seeking a formal education at a college can be an intimidating endeavor at any age. There is a sense of formality and finality in your choice of major. In my senior year of high school, I was faced with this decision, which scared me. The fear of choosing the wrong major was crippling as this would impact my future happiness in any career. Changes in a college major require self-reflection, financial support adjustments, and my family's perceived disappointment. In Dweck’s description of the fixed mindset, she states that “risk and effort are two things that might reveal your inadequacies and show that you were not up to the task” (11). I can now reflect and identify that I had a fixed mindset at this point in my life. The fear of failure stopped me from even attempting to pursue college, and instead of challenging myself, I chose the more secure option and enlisted in the US Army. However, the dream of going to college would come back but not until I learned a different way to approach failure.
In August 1999, I joined the US Army, where, after 11 ½ years of service, I was honorably discharged. Upon discharge, I found the transition to civilian life difficult, and I wasn’t able to find any job that wasn’t an entry-level position. I spent the past six years working redundant, low-wage, entry-level positions that provided no satisfaction or fulfillment to my happiness. I thought, is this all there is to life? Work for 30-50 years in a job I hate and retire? I knew there had to be more, and I realized that my goals would never come to fruition without an education. This moment of realization about education was different from my high school feelings. The fear of failure and my abilities had been replaced with excitement, the choices I would make would provide me the freedom to choose my career. In Dweck’s book, she describes this moment as an “Aha experience” (Dweck 10). In regards to the growth mindset, she states, “you will see exactly how one thing leads to another […] how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions taking you down an entirely different road” (10). Suddenly, everything was more manageable, the fear was replaced with excitement, the anxiety was replaced with opportunity. I had that Aha experience, and I realized that it was simple to achieve my dreams with education, hard work, and determination.
In the TEDTalk broadcast, “Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance,” speaker Angela Lee Duckworth talks about grit. She talks about going back to college to become a psychologist after a teaching position to understand better students and how they learn from a motivational and psychological perspective. She conducted several research studies and found that the most significant predictor of success is grit. She defines grit in the broadcast, stating that, “Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is stamina. Grit is sticking with your future […] and working hard to make that future a reality” (Duckworth). Her definition of grit and the ability to stick with long-term goals helped me analyze how my newly found growth mindset would help me achieve my dreams through my education.
Another significant event that happened after my military discharge was, I met my wife. Before my wife, I wanted the stereotypical American life, get a job, buy a house, and own a nice car. I’m not saying that those are wrong goals; it’s just those goals weren’t specific enough to provide me with any source of motivation. My wife has made a considerable impact on my ability to focus. During the early years of our relationship, there was a period where we had to roll quarters for gas in our cars and dealt with financial struggles. We often cried and argued about the best ways to distribute our earnings. I remember thinking to myself, “there has to be a better way of looking at things and working towards our goals.” I realize now that this was when I transitioned into the growth mindset. Duckworth states in the video, “the growth mindset is a great idea for building grit, but we need more […] we need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions and we need to test them. We need to measure whether or not we’ve been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned” (Duckworth). We learned through our financial failures that what we needed was security. We educated ourselves on how to set goals and attain them through necessity. What is extraordinary about my wife is that she wasn’t satisfied with getting our financial situation under control; she wanted us to be free. Free to have the option to work or not, the freedom to travel if we chose, and the only way to do that was by setting goals with clear, defined outcomes. There were times where we failed and had to change course, but we knew that we would learn lessons through those failures and would be able to persevere to reach the ultimate goal of financial security.
My wife and I are still on the journey to financial security with obvious goals in mind. My current educational goal is to attain my bachelor's in Information Technology – Information Security. This degree would allow me to pursue a career in a field for which I have always had a passion. This goal is a minor part of the greater purpose of financial independence, which would allow us to live life the way we choose. I know that successes will come with failures and that this is nothing to fear as it is ultimately a learning opportunity. Grit is built with having motivational goals and working hard to make your future a reality. I have learned that life can teach you a lot if you are willing to listen. I have been taught lessons with fear, financial struggles, and indecision throughout my life. It’s what you learn from these lessons that will grant you the wisdom for growth.
Duckworth, Angela Lee. "Grit: the power of passion and perseverance." Ed. Presentation. YouTube, 9 May 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=H14bBuluwB8.
Dweck, Carol S., PH.D. Mindset The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House USA Inc, 2007.
The projector reeled, playing on the small screen box. What a picture though. Black and white, speechless. The one was upstairs, his door locked. We were his friends.
We had all sat downstairs, watching what he had put on for us. Then he left. “Anybody know?” asked Bentley.
“No,” said I.
“Was that no, or know?”
“No... I don’t know.”
“You know you don’t know. Or you don’t know what you don’t know?”
“I know I don’t know, but I don’t know about the one.”
“The one is upstairs.”
“But is he here?”
“Not with us presently, but upstairs.”
“Physically? Do you believe that what’s not in our vision does not exist? Like what’s on the small box?” Bentley paused, then adjusted his position and promptly sat in the center next to the tall lamp.
“Know,” he finalized.
“No, or know?” I responded.
“I do…” What prosperous silence that followed in the empty foyer. The three window panes on the left showed the planets aligned then dropped out of sight. Three trees then sprouted outward in the view of the windows, then disappeared into a dying fall.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
Bentley turned. “I think the movie is trying to tell us about hypnosis and the human condition.”
“Not that out there.” I pointed to the three windows, watching the shifting plain before me.
“Reordering. Witness the existence of nonexistence.”
I decided then to use the restroom as an effort to put it out of my head. Upon leaving the restroom, the entire living room was mirrored. With Bentley and some of our other friends facing away from the small box. “What happened?” I asked.
“A plot twist,” replied Bentley.
“I don’t get it,” said another friend of ours.
“Neither do I,” I said. The room further darkened as the film faded to black. Bentley was perched. Our other friends were falling apart, they were dismembered without blood. “Are they dead?” I asked.
“They don’t exist,” said Bentley. “We’re all divine beings living an illusion of what stands affront. A vision which we wish to perceive.”
“And so they’re not dead?”
“If you think they are dead, then they are dead.”
“Are we dead?”
“We exist, and we don’t. Everything is nothing. Nothing is everything.” Just then, the door upstairs cracked open. I heard it squeak prominently over the tall foyer. “The one is here,” continued Bentley.
“Shall we go see him?”
“We must.” Moving along, quietly amongst the limbs, making no disturbances, we ascended the stairwell. His door was open, and the glints of stars emanated. But the ever-present howls of nothingness beckoned us awakened ones.
The one was a silhouette, standing by his small box that sparked on. The one’s detached head was strung from his spine. The head stretched out toward us. “The premiere is beginning.” He did not speak though. His mouth did not flutter in the utter void. “Reordering. Witness the existence of nonexistence.”
The spray of saltwater splashes onto the ship as we sail westward, the ocean stretched out on all sides. My ancient atlas lies pinned to the desk in my quarters, blotched red ink circling uncharted territory, territory my grandfather and my father before me attempted to traverse. Before leaving on the journey, I was warned that the water is treacherous, with barbed reefs and unusual things lurking there, which only excited me more. My ship is sturdy and my crew is stronger than those who traveled before us. We glide through the water, each sail filled and propelling us along. My father’s compass rests heavy in the middle of my chest, the cold chain it dangles on hung around my neck. I open my compass, and I’m right on track. 270 degrees west. Sailing towards the setting sun, my crew will soon be the first to discover what lies hidden deep in the sea. The sun begins to breach the horizon line, and I open my compass again.
The needle is spinning.
That can’t be right… I snap the compass shut and reopen it. I hope the needle will rest once again, 270 degrees west, but it continues to spiral. It’s the compass, it’s an old piece of junk. I demand a compass from a crewmate, reaching out my hand. The novice boy slides it from his tattered jacket pocket and I find that it has twinned my own. I shove his useless tool back to him. Each note, each bearing, each heading, everything should be perfect.
I jolt as my crewmate’s voice pulls me from my thoughts. Around us, the waters become angry and the ship threatens to capsize in murky green shallows. Crewmates scramble to keep the ship upright as the hull scrapes against the sea’s foundation. The setting sun cowers behind heavy clouds. The boy has let his sheets go slack and the wind begins to turn our ship. My face contorts and I open my compass once more. As we turn, the spinning subsides.
250 degrees, 230 degrees, 210 degrees.
We turn southbound and the waters begin to steady, the sky fades from pink to purple. In the distance, a monstrous green fin grazes the water and the boy speaks, addressing my confusion.
“Your compass isn’t broken. Tale has it, when your compass stops working, something wants you gone.”
The Magical Typewriter
Allie grabbed her old Royal manual typewriter and set it in the middle of the desk. That simple act made her break out in a sweat. It had been nearly 100 degrees for five days, and the humidity was so high it felt like it was raining in her room. The weather report said they would have five more days of this with no break in sight. The central air conditioning had given up two days ago and shut down from overheating. The fan that pointed at her moved the air, hot air. She might as well turn it off for all the good it was doing.
She slipped a piece of paper into the typewriter. She loved it, but getting the special ink was increasingly challenging and expensive. The last time it took almost a year to find, and it cost the same as her car. She always felt good after using it, like everything was right with the world. She addressed her hands to the keyboard, looked at the paper, and smiled. This typewriter was an old friend, one she had relied on many times.
It was a dark and stormy night. She stopped. It was a bit cliché, but it was her paper; she could write whatever she wanted. Her hands started to fly over the keys, back and forth as a wave in a swimming pool. She wrote what she wanted from the night. She described the breeze rustling through the leaves. Then the rain started, lightly like a mist on an early spring morning. As she wrote, she had the storm getting more intense, the wind bending the trees and the rain pounding off the pavement. The temperature outside dropped 30 degrees.
Allie finally finished writing and looked up. As she glanced at the setting sun, she saw the beginnings of a storm moving in. She smiled again.
Nearing the barnacle claimed ladder in the translucence of the dark rolling waves, The Diver waded through the sinking dunes and drifting nets of the sponge docks. He had walked this place for too long. The Diver looked out from the shattered porthole as he emerged from the locker. Sea debris broke through the aged, worn-down suit, clinging to his dank form.
His eyes were tired from walking blindly from ocean to ocean. His face not to be seen but lost in a former silhouette. Grabbing the rusted bar, he lifted himself with surprising lightness. For over sixty years he dragged the chain link of a thousand lifetimes. He breached the surface and for the first time embraced the fresh breeze of the ocean.
The Diver clung to the dock, his suit soaked and dripping with seawater. He pulled a starfish off who had been his only friend to accompany him in that wandering odyssey. He bent down and gently released him into the sea. “May the ocean be kinder to you, friend.” He brushed off the kelp that hung from his shoulders.
The Diver heard the calls of a whale. “I have a call to answer too…” He looked down at his gloves. Black residue leaked out, that was the preservation. The residue floated from his head and back to the sea. Like he was still underwater. The Diver turned, walking towards the deep pools of spring water.
The deepest springs in the country, he recalled as he neared the iron gates. A tall marble statue of a mermaid displayed topless with a firm bosom reminded him of a mermaid he once knew. The mermaid he’d been searching for since she swam away on that dark night to shore. The gate gave way, opening effortlessly by the hand of the Diver.
As if he floated right through, the Guard did not notice him. The Diver walked along the playful shores where children splashed, finally feeling freshwater was sensational. He went up to the guardhouse and pushed open the door. The Guard was asleep. “Nothing’s changed,” He said to himself. He moved to the underwater theater, staring out into the blackness of the deepest spring.
He sat on a bench for a minute, thinking how long it’s been since he sat anywhere. He was about to leave when he saw the Guard, standing by the door. “Who is that?! Come out with your hands up!” The Diver moved up the stairwell but did not surrender to the Guard’s orders. “Hey, didn’t you--” The Guard got a good look at the Diver from his light. That stroke of fear that Death had come to pay a visit. He tried to back away, the Diver caught him by the wrist, “L-let go of me!”
“Where is the owner?”
“The proprietor of this establishment?” The Diver’s grip tightened.
“He’s not here…” The Guard mumbled, treading on his words lightly.
“Then may I ask where he is, if not here?”
The Guard swallowed, “Why?”
“I have to pay a visit.”
“He’s too old to talk to, what business--”
“What business is it of yours to ask a question like that?” The Guard flinched. “I want to know where he lives…” The Diver said softly. “Can you give me that much?” He told him. “Still there? Things haven’t changed at all.” He let the Guard go and proceeded out the opening. But he stopped to turn back. “I remember the shows here.”
“The mermaid shows?”
“Yeah… I knew a mermaid once. She swam away into the sea or towards the shore. I’ve been trying to find her ever since.” The Diver walked out the front gate while the Guard was left in shock to contemplate what he had witnessed.
An old man was staring out his window. Sleep had become harder every day with the thought of not waking up. He did not see the Diver enter his home; he was sure something was to happen that evening. The old man finished his cognac and continued to stare out the window. “Hello Frank.” said the Diver. The old man turned. He knew who it was.
“I was wondering when you would turn up. Have you come to illustrate my penance? For the crimes that I’ve committed?” The Diver wandered on over, pulling a wicker chair from the corner.
“Do excuse me, Frank, I haven’t rested in so long.”
“Take all the time you need, I’m ready whenever you are.”
“I’m here to tie up old business.”
“I’m too old now, you know that.” He held out his shaking hand, “These hands are no good anymore.”
“They were at one point. For stabbing people in the back. You know why I’m here.”
“Of course I do. I knew your revenge would send you back from the locker and would lay waste, claiming my soul to suffer as you did.” The Diver did not answer but laughed. Laughed in a deep demonic tone. “What’s so funny about it?”
“You don’t understand I am here to forgive you, Frank… I’m not here for you. I have no vengeance. My justice has been answered.” He stood up and walked closer. “See when that harpoon tore through my back, I was sure as dead, but I’ve been looking for a mermaid, Frank.” Placing a hand on his shoulder, “A mermaid that did not choose you.” The old man bowed his head.
“She is said to wait by the shore every day. Her house is there against the waves.” He opened a lockbox and withdrew a locket. “You said you would cross oceans to be with her. She believed you. I thought during my youth, I could prove myself to her. But I couldn’t…”
“You, Frank, get to live longer and drag your own chain for the ones you’ve hurt. You could not keep me from her.”
“I know.” The Diver took the locket.
“I keep my promises.” The Diver said. He went to the door.
“I commend you.” The Diver had come out to an empty strip. He saw the old sponge shop he used to work in and the ice cream parlor where he danced with the mermaid for nights unending. At the shore, he saw the quiet little cabin, sitting on gold. The Diver went to the door and pushed it open. Her house consisted of photos of her at the springs with her mermaid tail lying on a rock. Greeting the guests. Her assorted records of Pied Pipers, Jo Stafford, Annette Hanshaw, and Bobby Darin lie scattered.
There, in the center of the room, was a photo of the Diver. He picked it up and looked on the back of the picture where a note was attached; I would walk oceans to find you. He put it down and walked into her room. She sat there in bed, reading, no sadness in her eyes but almost a sort of acceptance gleaned from the spring water eyes. “Little late, aren’t you?”
“You know it takes a while to get to your house on foot.”
“I know but you made it anyway, so are we going out?” She closed her book.
“I figured you might want to see the oceans with me this time.”
“You figured right.” She hobbled to her feet. “Will I need a coat?”
“I would suggest it.” She slipped on her coat and rounded one arm under his while playing with her locket.
“I missed you, David.” The sea opened, and they entered together.
I skip down the porch steps watching for the stones in my path, clumsy as I am. My grandfather, his fists deep within the raw grime of the earth, looks up in my direction, his toothy smile glowing like a model’s pearly whites on a toothpaste commercial. I pluck a ripe tomato from the stem. It has begun to open, the juice seeping and covering my hands. The odd tomato looks, in the strength of the noon sun, like a ruby.
“That’s an odd one, isn’t it Annie?”
“Sometimes those bent out of shape ones taste the best. Don’t judge a book by its cover. That’s how your grandma has put up with me all these years.”
“It’s certainly been an adventure, hasn’t it?” my grandmother utters with a chuckle.
I don’t remember my grandmother speaking. She sang. Her words came out at times high and contemplative, at times low and gentle like the lullaby a mother sings to her baby. Her fingers interlock in mine, a missing puzzle piece found. Her hands are smooth, yet not oily, and they smell of the lavender lotion she has most likely just applied.
She whispers tenderly: “Come, flower, the garden needs us, you and me.”
I follow the short, magical woman through the rusty door of a white picket fence. The layers of paint have begun to chip.
“Grandma,” I ask, “Why have you not replaced the fence, or at least painted it?”
“Because, dear Annie, the fence is beautiful in its rawness. Much like the soul of a person, the fence has many layers. Finally it has dared to peel off its mask. True, it is no longer perfect, but it is authentic and real.”
On the surface, my grandmother’s eyes danced to the beat of childlike optimism; they operated like an eternal opening door saying: “Come in, it is warmer inside.” I wind my way around the stems of these exuberantly hued creations. I grin as my grandmother touches each bright petal with a delicate, affectionate rub.
“Grandma, can a person rule a garden?”
“A mere mortal? No. But my flower, she grows the flowers wild. They grow in beauty at her very word.”
The flowers bloom and blossom as though a paintbox has emptied its contents onto fragile stems. I am Mary Lennox from that story I love so much, though this garden has never been secret to me. I watch my grandmother as she packs rich, flaky soil around a lily pot. I could not imagine my grandmother’s hands aching from the labors of work, her eyes wet, tears running down her china doll face because the world and its prejudice had broken her. For all I knew the sun had shined upon my sweet grandma all her days. I knew only that I was her flower, and that she loved me beyond comprehension. She loved me enough to hide her pain, her anguish, as though I was a princess and she was a daring knight, fighting off fiery dragons I could not see for my own protection. Paradise is not to be had or even found in this life. Paradise is to be earned, after we have weathered every storm, allowed ourselves to bloom again after brutal uprooting, and opened ourselves to the light and love the world offers. Someday, in a place beyond all time, I will be blessed with a garden paradise.
The sign said, always vacant, the night had drawn to a brisk, he needed rest. The guest emerged into the lobby doors of the hotel. There stood a cockroach; named Phil. “Room?” asked the guest.
“Yes.” said Phil, “We’re always vacant.”
“Good. Sleep is all I need.”
“Sleep is what you’ll get.” The tiled floors were cracked and uneven. The room smelt of burnt wood and sizzling cigars, when it clearly stated on the wall, NO SMOKING. The guest was confused, “The last guest didn’t listen to the rules.” Smiled Phil. “Be sure, you keep the room clean. There’s an infestation here.”
“Okay.” said the guest. He bade Phil goodnight and walked into his room. The wallpaper peeled flesh that pulsated, the floorboards breathed deeply. The place was infested. He sat down on his bed, a radio was droning in the back. The shower turned on and turned off again. Then the floor broke apart. “A radiator must be on,” the guest said to himself. “Better sleep and have more energy.”
He laid back on the bed that began to swallow him. “Later.” He said to the bed, “When I’m asleep.” The bed said okay and lifted him back up. He wanted work to be done, but he didn’t feel like it. The guest got out a tattered pulp novel and flipped through it. Money made the world vacant, he thought. Tossing the book across the room which got swallowed from the wall, he laid back down.
The guest spent his money there. The place was infested. Infested with guests who willingly wander into the hands of self-consumption. The world split. Had eaten many of the vacant guests who vacated their money and earnings and greed into places like these. For cockroaches to feed off of.
The whole place was a bug house. Waiting to eat him in his sleep. He didn’t care, he needed it, he wanted it. Too bad. That he wasn’t tired so that things could be over with. So the guest kicked the floor. The floor swallowed his foot, but it spat his foot back out. Not ripe enough, it said.He laid back on his bed, and the digestive tract began to sink in the room. He could hear the groaning stomach of the hungry establishment, the television kept turning on and off. The guest awoke sober again and… not eaten! He was furious.
The guest stormed down to the lobby. Phil was playing solitaire. “Hey!” He screamed.
“Why wasn’t I eaten last night?”
“Because you’re an extended guest.”
“Don’t give me that! I wanted to be eaten last night. What a gyp, I’ll go somewhere that’s validated.”
“You really want to go back out there tonight? Want to return to the monotonous world? The consumed world? This place is the most validated you’re going to get, sir.” The guest sighed.
“Perhaps you’re right Phil. Any messages for me?” Phil smiled and reached into the reception cupboard.
“One telegram from the actress Miss Barrett. She said she'll be arriving this evening.”
“I see, thank you.”
“You are welcome, I am glad I was able to help.”
“You accommodated actually.” The guest wandered over to the couch and sat in the dust. Phil resumed his game.
“That you are right.”
Andrew Edward Lyons Nolan
The quiet rumble of the heating element always makes her jump when she switches on the kettle. She should write a letter to the manufacturer. She adds it to her yellow pad and continues across the kitchen in a zaftig pirouette to the cabinet where she feigns perusal of the mugs, even though she only ever uses the one. A big bathtub of a thing given by her favorite niece on some long-ago birthday. She really should cull her collection. Keep a few, in case of company, box the rest for the Goodwill.
She adds it to the list.
Maybe in the spring. She’ll give all the cabinets a good clearing out then. Lots of devices of confectionary creation she’ll no longer be needing come springtime. By then she should be well enough on towards her goal to let go of all the possible delicious things they help her bake. Obviously, she’ll have to keep her mother’s pizzelle iron. And the stand mixer, that’s too expensive to give up, and versatile too. There must be dozens of healthy concoctions she can whip up in that. And the cake pans. What if one of the nieces or nephews gets married? Or has a baby? Who else is going to make the cake? No, she’ll need to be keeping the baking pieces, but maybe some of the Tupperware can go...the ones with missing tops at least. Well, she’ll figure it out in the spring.
She adds it to the list.
Her practiced choreography falters as she realizes what’s in her hand. She’d instinctively gone for the emerald box. Irish Breakfast. Her favorite. She’d completely forgotten, it’s been her companion for so many mornings but now she’s switched to the green stuff in the gaudy chartreuse package. Something about “charging the metabolism” to welcome the morning. It was worse than giving up the butter. The green stuff was weak and pale and tasted ever so slightly of potting soil. Hardly a triumphant way to start the day. A strong cup of proper black tea, lovingly prepared with just a bit too much milk and an ample squeeze of honey is worth getting out of bed for. The workbook and companion website she’d bought a membership to, at a discount rate by paying for the whole year upfront, says that sacrifices are essential to serious results. She was all for making sacrifices in order to achieve the new life she’s after, but there were limits she thought as she contemplated the two teas and the trash can, and which would make the bin its home.
Maya Rises and So Do I: A Reader Responds to Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise
As one of the most celebrated American poets of the twentieth century, Maya Angelou’s works are some of the most well-known pieces of literature to grace the page. “Still I Rise” is no different, with its rolling and rocking rhythms, utilizing the kind of technique that makes it roll off the tongue when it is recited out loud. Still I Rise is a poem that unabashedly celebrates womxnhood, exploring themes of freedom and value, mixing images of things both natural and man-made to make a poignant statement. This drew me instantly to this work, as I know I, and many other womxn, could use that voice and that message in our lives.
As I began to work through the (relatively short) poem, pink highlighter in hand, I made quick work of underlining every word that popped out at me. I drew little squiggles under “sassiness,” “haughtiness,” and “sexiness,” noting every question posed and every stylistic choice, digesting the words as they came. When I had finished, I looked over my marked-up paper and was struck by the two-dimensional nature of my reading. In focusing on the words, I had missed something. As a reader who savored every chapter and every page of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I knew Angelou’s work to be too good to read passively. Grounding myself in my chair, I instead greeted Angelou as an old friend and sat with her awhile. She had many things to say.
Many have tried to encapsulate what exactly it is like to be a womxn throughout history. While her words are in no way all-encompassing or perfect, Angelou, in 1978, seemed to capture that essence. While I may not dance as though “I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” (Angelou), I can understand both the desire and the hesitation. Being surrounded by those who would not wish you well (as in one of the verses, she asks her audience if they simply wish to see her suffer and cry) can suck that soulful joy right out of you. In one piece we see both the highs and the lows of womxnhood, the censure, and the criticism, and yet also see the value and beauty of our lives. Angelou weaves together an empowering image of a person who has overcome the “past that’s rooted in pain” to the point that she feels she can walk with the pride of an oil tycoon, one of the most powerful careers in the country at the time of this book’s publishing.
In Maya Angelou’s journey, none of this self-actualization happened overnight. It is easy to get defeated when the only thing relatable about this poem is despair and “soulful cries” (Angelou), but in doing so we miss the fullness of her story. Every laugh that burst out of her chest was earned by a long battle, and every dance shook off the pain of so many years. Knowing this gives such a texture and vibrancy to the text, as I could almost envision her deep and meaningful joy when she writes “‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines, diggin’ in my own backyard” (Angelou). This isn’t necessarily light or mirthful; it is soulful and purposeful defiance. It is the choice to see one’s own worth and embrace it.
Every womxn should have a mentor, friend, or maternal figure, with the indomitable spirit and the absolute security of Angelou in this poem. Over and over again she reclaims negativity by using her own innate magic to transform it into strength. She prides herself on being fiery, sensual, and out-spoken, defying the norms that tell womxn to change these things. She finds value in herself, and the very things she received flack about. As an outspoken womxn myself, I deeply internalized this, as it is often difficult not to succumb to the desire to change oneself to be more palatable, to remove one’s sexy or sassy.
Though Angelou purposefully encapsulates reclaiming one’s worth and finding security in who you are, I know that I can only go so far in the process of truly understanding. Angelou’s words, especially, are important to Black womxn, reminding me of my privilege as a white womxn. It is sobering to read the fourth line from the end, “I am the dream and the hope of the slave” (Angelou) as it was a reminder of the added transgressions that POC womxn go through on top of their gender. In some ways, this poem could be considered a celebration of, not just womxnhood, but Black womxn, and of Black excellence. In this way too, it is still a reclamation, if not even more than before!
It is so tempting to do the opposite of Angelou in the poem, to curl up in a ball when bitterness is hurled at you. As I sat with this poem, I longed for the confidence and groundedness that is portrayed. I wanted so badly to earn that same laugh, dance that same way, and to rise like the dust— just as she says. It is because of this, that I read it out loud to myself several times, as a reminder and an empowering statement, reminding me that I will rise. That much is clear from this poem….
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
-from “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
A thief awaits inside the temple of your blackened mind. A phantom! Menaces in the vacuum of thy eyes. The heroic wreath of starlight that surrounds the neck of the broken man is one only you, the faceless, would desire. Atop his pale stool, he brushes his fingers against the static waves of the country’s television set. This broken man rollicks at the sight of freedom, only to manufacture a makeshift home in the center of your black holes. Dots collect and from there you caress a life that isn’t yours to keep but was sold to you anyway. Within your feeble delusions, you hold the grandeur of him but lack the patience for the backlight that hasn’t turned on. Perhaps he is the culmination of mistakes, and you, the one too naïve to call yourself ignorant.
Your last words, as intoxicating as the first. As you move along that tight gorge, you unravel the guard you set so high. Release comes from your child-minded head that no longer sits atop the stem. Pleasure graduates you from man to pillager. Your reflection that pauses in the mirror stares back with a bludgeoned decline. You take a daughter and assume you bear the elation of the fruit, veiled by cloth and string. As you prolong the night, the lasting effect not only unripens the delicacy that lies beneath, but murders the seeds that lie within. Sloshing around in a river that has not been properly untied, your figure reeks. The body that sits numb watches the ceiling roll and roll as you put your fluids down the esophageal tract. The look of slaughter that lies nude casts a shadow on the wall of Plato’s Cave. You kiss it one last time. A seal of misfortune and lasting suffering. Your seal.
In a Diner
The coffee had gone cold. He sat in a vacant booth, toward the end of the neon reaching the light that stabbed and hissed on the entrenching rain. Catching a spark and a flicker, he looked up to the sign and thought of his father. Which was when his father walked in. A woman had pointed over to where the son was sitting, and the father slid in.
“So,” he started.
“So,” the son responded. The woman poured them both a cup and walked away into a dispersing haze.
The son sipped his coffee.
“I gave you prosperity.”
“You robbed me of opportunity.”
He continued his sipping, making it abundantly loud to irritate his once old man.
“I wanted you to find an order, so I might be proud of you.”
“You had a funny way of showing if you ever were proud.” The rain poured harder and the neon lights went out cold. Only a singular sheet of red had spread across the diner floor; it was the exit sign.
“No point in exiting,” the father said.
“Wasn’t going to.”
“Why did you disown me?”
“Because you were too wrapped up in work. And then tried to keep me around.”
“That should make you feel bad.”
“Why should I feel bad? You always had a way of guilt-tripping.” The coffee had gone cold. “Ma’am?!” The lights came back on momentarily. The woman in a now blood-spattered dress and milky eyes came forward, pouring the black liquid.
“The blind hears pain,” she mumbled. The lights cut out again. Only red illuminated the one-way floor, and her eyes became headlights in the now fogging room. There was carnival music from outside.
“Were you blind?” the son asked.
“I was in pain,” he responded. “Did you not love me?”
“Love was all I had, and you shut me out. You never gave a signal for approval.”
“I was afraid.”
“Because you were blind.”
“Because I was in pain.” The rain became louder, leaking in from the ceiling, peeling it away. “Now we’ll both drown in this despair.”
“Our relationship was always an abyss that we couldn’t swim out of.” The water began to rise slowly, the coffee was almost gone again. The son hailed the waitress. She came back, decomposed and rotting.
“You sacrificed our relationship for his approval,” she said, filling up his cup. He looked to find boiling blood had replaced the coffee.
“So,” the father said.
“So,” the son responded.
“You poured blood into your cup. For what I’ve done to you?”
“You did this, Father. Now I walk the road of the damned.”
“Be damned then. Never did I think my son would do this. I’m already dead. Why should you be?”
“You did this,” the son said again. The blood spilled onto the table. The woman came back again. She was all bone.
“I’m the rotted love between you two.” She cleaned the blood. “Here’s your check. Good night.” The father looked up to his son and paid the check.
“The blood is on me,” he said.
“It was. And look what you did to me.” He revealed little cuts all over his body. “My soul was cut, little by little until it couldn’t hold out any longer.”
“I’m sorry son. I wish I loved you more.” The neon lights came back on, and his father was gone again. Like he was never there in the first place, thought the son.
A Series of Short Voicemails
Hey, it’s Austyn. Yeah, I know. It’s been quite some time since the last time, but that means we’re closer to the next time, right? Right.
Remember every day in the lunchroom you’d give me this look, this look of we’re the same. This look of “hey gang, let’s not split up”. This look of innocence in wisps of hair, dry your eyes, here we are, remember me?
Hey. It’s her. Which is to say her is me and me is her because there’s nothing past here. Remember here? Remember when you took me behind the trees, blew the smoke in my face, the smoke I still taste every time the clock strikes 3? Remember me?
Remember the letter you sent that I never burned? Remember how you asked me for a love poem, handing over the smile on your face as a fair exchange. Your hands that drew so delicately, a masterpiece around my back, curling around my shoulders, the leash, the collar, the chain. Seven years frayed.
Hey, did you mean it when you said you didn’t mean it? You just fell into me and I was already broken to begin with, right? Accidents happen to everyone. Remember when my mom told me it was my fault I got hurt? No, of course not, you weren’t there for that (it was my fault anyways). Ok but do you remember when Tyler hooked his arms around me and you hit the tree, like a car with no brakes and a suicide attempt in your sleep, remember me?
Hey, I just called to give you that love poem. Jesus Christ. Remember the day you told me I was yours and left out the part about you being mine and maybe I don’t belong to anyone. Remember when I became stolen property? Remember when I started playing with ghosts just to see those beautiful blue eyes, haunting in this haunted house? Remember when I became the haunting?
Hey gang, let’s split up.
I just want to get it right this time. I wish I could do it again so maybe I can stop asking for a do-over. It’s time to stop the whirlwind of me and the cursed threes. No for shows or silhouettes. No disrespect. I want you to know I don’t remember, but how could I forget?
Hey, baby, remember when you told me you wish you had killed me?
Remember when you told me that you still loved me?
On the bustling city street, she joined his laughter, feeling so weightless. Maybe it was just her heart that was soaring. They looked at each other, almost doubling over, eyes leaking like the faucets back at the apartment. Just five feet from the entrance of a coffee-scented café, their hands went numb and torsos grew sore. Their air was gulped in just to be launched out. Hundreds of onlooking eyes watched them, but anyone who would judge this moment must never have had a feeling quite like it. Humans can’t fly, but if there’s an emotion where you think you might be able to, God, this was it.
One Hundred Words on Solitude
Andrew Edward Lyons Nolan
The cup, the chair, the pen. These are the items before him in the room with the window that looks out on the sidewalk, where he pays no attention to those who pass from time to time; a walled sanctuary of the mind’s greater work he hopes to begin. Here is him alone with his thoughts and his breath and his time. Here is a room that is his own and no one else’s. It is a sacred space, an altar to himself as he is, without the others he may know in other rooms; their voices cannot penetrate here.
A Cat’s Duty
I’m still not sure what’s going on. All I know is one day we woke up, she started running, and I followed. She had millions of warm pelts, and I marked most of them. There were so many ways for me to practice and hone my hunting with all the odd dead mice. I guess that all came in handy.
When she picked me up, I clawed at her arms and begged her to put me down, but she just held onto me tighter. I gave up fighting. When she stopped and set me down, I lapped up some water from a puddle on the ground. I didn’t notice anything strange then, but I grew. I don’t think I’ve stopped growing, but it’s slowed down. She can’t pick me up anymore, but she also can’t shove me off her anymore if I try to sleep on her. It’s a win-lose situation for both of us, I guess.
I still wonder though. Why did we leave? We left such a warm den to sleep with rats. Ugh, the disgusting things. I’ve caught three of them, but I couldn’t eat them. She made me spit them out, but she only put them around where we slept. A nice warning for the others. I ate one while she was asleep one day but it was mere seconds later I was hurling it back up like a furball. I wish I had the stomach to eat another one. Its bones would have made an even better warning. I want to hunt again. I want to feel that excitement again, to wait and bide my time as I flick my tail back and forth.
THERE! I see my opportunity crawling about in the shadows. Crouch…. hold still… flick flick flick…. gather the right muscles… tense… RELEASE! I shoot from next to her sleeping form and pad quietly back with a fresh scratch and a freshly dead rat. They’re getting bigger. How are they getting bigger? She’s getting so much smaller. Her body doesn’t have the same heat it used to. She had something to keep her warm before, but I can’t remember what. Even though I’m much bigger now I still can’t keep her warm anymore.
She stopped lighting the fires a couple of nights ago. I thought it was to keep the rats away, and then my warnings seemed to help. I thought it was to keep her warm, but she was cold with them or without. She doesn’t really move anymore. I hunt other animals: birds and rabbits instead of these big nasty rats. Even when I lay the unmoving bodies across her chest, she doesn’t get up. She doesn’t make a fire. She doesn’t cook them. She doesn’t eat them. She lets them rot, right there on her. I don’t eat what I catch. I give it all to her. Still, she lets them rot.
I grow weaker every day. I can’t catch the birds anymore, they’re too fast. The rabbits learned ages ago not to come near me. I can’t keep up. I’m not sure what else I can hunt for her. We don’t eat the rats. Maybe it’s time I change that. I pad down the stairs, and find her shadowy form still curled up asleep. Except there’s a visitor this time. A rat. I look closer and he’s bitten her. Why hasn’t she moved? I lunge at him, but he’s too fast. He dodges my slow teeth and retaliates with a bite on my leg. I must defend her. The rat has become the victor, and it’s all I can do to drag my bleeding body closer to her. I curl up around her and purr in her face, wanting her to move but knowing she won’t as the rats converge around us.
I've always loved space, ever since I was little. So I knew I wanted to do something related to it when we were assigned a research paper in my creative writing class. But I didn't exactly know what to write about. That is, until I remembered about one of my favorite historical events; the orange soil event of Apollo 17.
For a bit of background, in the early 1960s, the National Aeronautics Space Administration, NASA, was tasked by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Thus, the Apollo program was born. On July 20th, 1969 at 3:17 pm, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon’s surface, becoming the first two men to set foot on another world. There were six Apollo missions after Apollo 11; Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 were resounding successes while Apollo 13 had a major issue on the way to the moon and was unable to land, returning to Earth instead.
On the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17, Eugine Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed in the lunar valley of Taurus-Littrow, located 20.19080° N latitude, 30.77168° E longitude. After landing on the lunar surface the two astronauts went on multiple EVAs [Extravehicular Activity: AKA a Space Walk]. They found a patch of orange regolith/soil. Regolith is defined as the layer of unconsolidated rocky material covering bedrock. The clear excitement in their voice has always put me in a good mood. Doctor Harrison Schmitt, the first scientist on the moon, who just so happens to be a geologist, can clearly be heard with excitement in his voice as he investigates the soil. It's such a simple thing on Earth- but 238,900 miles away on the moon, it's a sight to behold. So, I went to the one place all people who want to know something go, Google, and I began my search.
What was the orange soil that was found on Apollo 17? I found that it was actually a volcanic glass by the name of Norite. Norite is a mafic rock, and its coloration is fascinating. Norite is a calcium-rich olivine rock that only forms in volcanic settings, mainly due to the dark patches on the moon, the mares, are also made of volcanic rock. They are actually dried lakes of lava that cooled billions of years ago. The fact that Norite was found on the surface of the moon reveals two fascinating facts. The first being that the moon is made of the same materials as Earth, evident by the composition. The other being that the moon was seemingly geologically active in the past.
The moon’s surface, however, on average is very bland. Grey regolith is everywhere around you, maybe a rock, maybe a crater or two; the fact that a large splotch of colored soil was found is not surprising, but its presence there is the part that excited everyone. The reason we could identify it is because we brought samples of the orange soil back to Earth so they could be studied in research laboratories. That this soil had been sitting on the surface of the moon for billions of years just for some astronauts to come and scoop it up and take it millions of miles back to Earth is amazing to me. Scientists back on Earth were able to find out that the soil was Norite, a volcanic glass. Glass! The kind of stuff you put in your windows was formed naturally on the surface of the MOON.
The particles were tiny - VERY tiny: most were less than 0.1 millimeters across, smaller than a grain of sand! Orange soil particles are the smallest particles we have ever found off of Earth. The particles are almost spherical, like tiny beads of orange glass. The reason they are shaped like this is because they cooled so incredibly fast that they never had time to deform from droplets. Imagine looking up at the moon billions of years ago to see glowing splotches and dots of lava flowing over its surface.
It was then I got curious. Where did they find the soil? Turns out they found it in Taurus-Littrow! The lunar valley is located on the edge of an area on the moon by the name of Mare-Serenitatis, a lunar mare that is 674 kilometers in diameter. That’s bigger than New York state! The landing site was in the southeastern corner of Taurus-Littrow, and they were able to explore a good chunk of the southeastern part of the valley before leaving.
I then wanted to find out where the soil came from, as well as how it was formed. Apparently, it formed around 3.64 billion years ago in either a volcanic eruption or an asteroid impact. My bet is on a volcanic eruption because these glass particles of Norite were formed 400 kilometers under the surface of the moon! 400 KM! Who would have thought that these little beads of glass would have traveled so far?
Through the course of this project, I actually did learn a few new little tidbits of information that I was not previously privy to! This event is still just one little moment that occurred in the entire Apollo program.
Jones, Eric M. “Orange Soil.” NASA, NASA, 14 June 2014, www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a17/a17.sta4.html.
Siegel, Ethan. “The Last Great Discovery Of Our Trip To The Moon: Lunar Volcanic Glass!” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 24 Dec. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2015/12/24/the-last-great-discovery-of-our-trip-to-the-moon-lunar-volcanic-glass/?sh=14c75eae2878.
“Apollo 17 Mission.” Apollo 17 Mission Samples Overview, www.lpi.usra.edu/lunar/missions/apollo/apollo_17/samples/#:~:text=The%20orange%20particles%20are%20volcanic,up%20to%207%20centimeters%20across.
Nemiroff, Robert, and Jerry Bonnell. “APOD: 2001 May 23 - Strange Orange Soil on the Moon.” NASA, NASA, 23 May 2001, apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap010523.html.
Bruno Jefferson looked around the Scarlet Angel. On the deck, his wife Cathy and daughter Becky looked like a pair of angels lying on towels in the mid-afternoon sun.
He made a routine check of the ship and the seas, and then his thoughts turned to how he happened to be here. Many times over the past two weeks, he had thought of this subject, and yet he never came up with a good solution. The entire situation was unfair.
Born in 1951, he married his childhood sweetheart, Cathy, in 1969. The Army drafted Bruno shortly before his daughter Becky was born in 1971. After serving his tour in Vietnam, he returned home to a country in chaos. Protests against the war and those who served raged. He struggled to hold a job. Almost everything brought back the images of smoke, fire, and dead bodies. He was exhausted all the time because his nightmares kept him awake. He never told anyone about his demons.
He had moved his family to Florida with the intent of telling no one of his time in the military and he hoped the nightmares would go away. His in-laws lived here and allowed them to use the sailboat.
He noticed Cathy and Becky standing up. It was amazing how much they looked alike. Becky liked to act and dress like her mother. If you said anything to her, she would giggle like the seventeen-year-old she was.
Cathy hugged Bruno as he kissed her on the forehead. The ladies were stretching after sitting so long.
Becky asked, “When do we reach Bermuda?”
“Four or five more days.” Becky looked a little sad. Bruno smiled at her. “Looking forward to the beach parties?”
“Yes, but I am getting tired of looking at nothing but sea. I need green grass. A tree or two. A mountain.”
Cathy asked, “Still the same wish?”
Becky smiled before they headed back to their towels. They had barely sat down when they started yelling and pointing into the sky. Bruno casually looked upward, expecting to see the contrail of a plane going by. What he saw was a sky changing from blue to green and then gray as fog enveloped them. Bruno caught a glimpse of a green meadow as the sea disappeared. The sailboat gave a terrific jar, came to a complete stop, and fell to the right. Bruno’s head hit something as he fell, and then there was darkness.
Bruno felt no sensation. A thought echoed in his mind, is this what death is? It seemed an eternity before he started feeling something: Pain. At first, he couldn’t identify where but his heart started beating faster. There would be no pain in death. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to identify the location of the pain. His head throbbed, and his shoulder hurt. After some time, he started hearing voices. Focusing on them, he tried to make out the words. Gradually the world stopped spinning, the echoes faded, and the voices became less fuzzy. Becky, who was close behind, talked to Cathy, who was about fifteen feet off to the left. As he moved a little to test the pain, a groan escaped his lips.
Cathy yelled to him, “Bruno, don’t move! I’m coming over to you!” Her voice sounded miles away. Bruno tried talking again, and this time a croak came out. Cathy came into focus. She was favoring her back, and there was blood barely concealed in her hairline.
The three sat there for a few minutes, stretching, testing muscles, and clearing their heads.
Cathy started to ask a question, but Becky got it out first. “Where are we? Why are we on the ground? Where is the ocean?”
Bruno gave her a crooked smile. “I don’t know. Just give me a couple of minutes to phone the local chamber of commerce, and then I’ll let you know. Are you hurt?”
“Only bruised. It appears that I will probably live,” Becky chuckled. He had always taught her that humor could cure many things.
“My back hurts, and I have a headache that feels like a bomb went off in my head. Other than that, I feel like a round of golf. How about you?”
“My left ankle aches and my shoulder got jammed, but I can use it if I have to. I suppose golf should be out for today, though.”
They all stood up slowly, each favoring the painful cuts and bruises. Everyone was a bit shaky, but they stood without wobbling too much.
The ship was leaning against a good-sized tree. The tree was the only one for several hundred yards in any direction. All three looked around in awe. There was no water anywhere. To their right, they could see a line of mountains with a forest in between. To the left were some low hills with small trees on them. In front of them was what looked like a small village at the edge of the field. Smoke was coming from many of the buildings.
The One Next Door
New York City. If you are thinking of an emerald lady with a torch, the empire state building (which is just an office space that’s called a landmark) or a Plaza hotel where some six-year-old wild child ran around in a book once, you are probably a tourist. Visitors are easy to spot because they always see, but never watch. Never observe the little things. I live in a brownstone apartment in the heart of Manhattan. If you’re looking for privacy, move to the crop expanses and little cabins of the country. But if you are looking to live multiple lifetimes, as so many dreamers are, come to the heart of the living. I have two next-door neighbors myself. In the movies, the neighbor is always the best friend or the worst enemy. Hmmm…that’s interesting.
Every day, after I’ve laced up my hightops and buttoned my tattered overalls, I open the tall imposing door and skip (yes, I do skip - I’m still a child, give me a break) to sit on the iron steps that provide an entrance to our townhouse. I can’t have a treehouse without any grass in my yard, or a yard to speak of. So this is my perch. I sit, and I look. I look at chips in the dusty stone that has been welded together for centuries. I like to think that a glamorous heiress in a ballooning pale pink hoop skirt once spun out of this urban palace to attend a garden party. Such a high society maven would be born to love all things beautiful, as all glamour would be firmly in her possession. Oh that I was a queen of the Upper East Side. I hear the steady click-click clackety! of glittering ruby stilettos, the kind that make you want to click your heels and say “there’s no place no home” like in an old movie I saw once. What is that smell? A fresh pan pie, must be. An orchestra of cherry tomato and stringy mozzarella permeates the confines of my nose. In the distance, I hear the crust give that airy crackle, like the dying embers of a fire in their last spark of life. Savor the slice, good sir. Wow, is that old Mrs. Maybelle? I once thought that she lived in a subway car. I mean it. It turns out she just really likes the spring collection of wide-brimmed hats at Bloomingdales. She boards a train in the super early morning to get the deepest discounts and the best selection.
“Louise!” My best friend Marge prances out of her brownstone and steps light and graceful like that old-fashioned heiress down to fling herself beside me in what she calls a “power pose.”
I live Marge’s life through watching her, and being with her like, all the time. Marge once heard the word nonconformist, and decided she liked it. Last year, after an eternity of begging and pleading and just a hint of deception, her parents finally let her dye her hair, and she chose hot pink.
“Well, if it isn’t Ace and the Cotton Candy diva.”
You may ask who belongs to this voice, and I will tell you promptly that its owner is “cocky” Colin White, owner of the brown house on the other side of this chain, and my thus my other neighbor. Colin always calls me Ace because I carry around a composition notebook and write the stories and people I see. He thinks I should have them published in the school newspaper. But he doesn’t understand. I’m comfortable being the prop in the play of Marge’s life. She needs me to clap when she gives a stirring performance, and the spotlight is too bright anyway.
“You know, cocky Collin, you could care to learn our real names, if you wanted to,” Marge snaps.
“You could care to learn your real name, if you tried.”
Marge insists I (and anyone else she can convince), call her Marilyn and not Marge. She thinks Marge sounds like the name of a fifties sitcom character, and she wants to be a Broadway starlet. She always tells me that Marilyn is very old Hollywood while also sounding smart.
“You remember my name, cocky Collin. Someday it's going to be on every playbill. In fact, today is my big break. Starlets Curtains is having open auditions for Annie, and I’m going to play that orphan and get out of my hard-knock life! Aren’t you coming with me Louise?”
“I thought your parents didn’t want you to audition. They said you're too young for the pressure.”
“Well, I may not be as cocky as Collin, but the show must go on, Louise, and I must star in it. All these passersby you scribble about on loose-leaf deserve to see my genius!”
“Did you ever think that Louise watches people for inspiration? She writes, in case you forgot,” Colin cuts in.
“She is my best friend, of course I know she writes her little articles and stories, and someday they will be published. But that day is not today. Today is the day I emerge from obscurity and into fame. Now, dear sweet friend Louse, let's leave our most persistent critic and run away.”
If it wasn’t for Marge Marilyn, I might never dare to dodge snickering rats and decomposing garbage to leap onto the subway and glide to that mecca of drama and pizazz that is Starlets Curtains.
“Okay, Louise. We need to look older. I didn’t want to say so in front of cocky Colin, but the competition is going to be more experienced, more seasoned, they will have had more starring roles than me, and I don’t like that. So put this on.”
I take the tube of lipstick she hands me and apply it generously. Then we gently untie each other’s hair ribbons and let wisps of blonde multiply as we loosen our braids.
“Better. If we walk tall with confidence, we will be taken seriously.”
Starlets Curtains is an institution. Starlet has trained more future Broadway fixtures than one can count. The theater is grand and luxurious, a red carpet is rolled out as we step in. Marble arches trimmed with brass stand resolute as new posters for upcoming features are pinned to the walls.
“Hello, says Starlet’s melodic voice as she approaches us. If it isn’t my youngest apprentice in the dramatic arts, Miss Marilyn Bixby.”
“In the flesh, and ready to sing about how the sun will come out tomorrow.”
“Well, you certainly are the most enthusiastic prospect, and a budding talent to boot. Come then, aspiring performers.”
Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow! You’re only a day away!
Marilyn finishes her performance with a beaming smile I can feel in my toes. I clap boisterously. After her audition, Starlet allows us to peek backstage. There are crates of props buoyed by long-ago painted sets: swords and crowns, books and dishes, cardboard fire-breathing dragons and rustic barns, painted to the texture of real wood.
“Marilyn, I ask, do you think props are important?”
“Of course. There could never be an Annie without her curly red wig or a phantom without his moon-shaped mask. Holding the prop that defines a character, helps you act better, it believes in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself. I have an idea. Let's do an interview!”
I flick on my camera, and give a rousing intro. “Hello world! I’m talking to my super-talented, future award-winning best friend Marilyn Bixby! Lets interview her. So, Miss Bixby, how do you think it will feel to star as Annie in the play?”
“I will be filled with indescribable joy. My heart starts beating faster just thinking about it. That red dress and curly hair. A moment, just one, that will be all my own. I’ve never wanted anything more.”
“What makes you so happy about acting? Where does your infectious passion come from?”
“Acting makes me feel free. Of course it's fun to have a flair for the dramatic, but the true pull is being a powerful, strong character. Feeling the emotions, being another person for an hour and a half. If my life is bleak, I can live as someone else for even a short time. It's comforting and thrilling to see the curtains part. The burdens fall off my shoulders when I fit on a costume.”
“Last question: other than acting on Broadway and winning every honor possible, what do you want most?”
“For my BFF Louise to drop her pen and act with me on stage of course!”
“Sorry Marilyn. But I am cursed with stage fright. That’s never going to happen.”
“A girl can dream, Louise.”
“Louise! The cast list was posted!” I can hear the tap of Marilyn’s ballet flats as she jerks with a hold on the subway pole. “You know Louise, you’re one of the little people I’ll thank when I’m famous. You are my most valuable prop.”
“Thank you, Marilyn,” I say supportively. But living in Marilyn’s shadow is beginning to lack appeal. Her shadow, once a warm and welcoming nest I cradled in, now feels cold.
I remember those moments. Those last, precious moments of hope and optimism before we found Marilyn's name and followed it across the page. I both yearn to hold those moments, and cast them off.
“Sandy? I’m the dog??? My only lines will be barks.”
“But it's like you said. Sandy is Annie’s best friend. Her most important prop.”
“I’m not the prop, Louise. You are! I want to be the star, and you believe in me.”
“But if I wanted to write a story or an article, you would believe in me, right?” There is a paralyzing silence.
“You’d never be brave enough to give your pieces to a newspaper. Recording a few sounds and smells that no one gets to read doesn’t make you a writer, Louise. You’ll always be a prop. I can’t believe you want to drag me down with you.”
Starlet tries to explain to Marilyn that she has a beautiful singing voice, but she is very young. In a few years she will be able to...that’s as much as I heard before the door slammed.
I’ve sat on the steps of my brownstone apartment for two days without even a trace of Marilyn. She has probably become a ghost, haunting Starlets Curtains like the Phantom of the Opera. If you see a neon-haired woman scorned with a half mask, please let me know.
“Where’s little orphan Annie, Ace?”
“Probably at rehearsal. Hopefully she realized there are no small roles, only small actors.”
“How does it feel to no longer be an understudy in your own life?”
“What do you mean, Colin?”
“Like that. You called me Colin. You’ve called me cocky Colin ever since you became friends with Marge.”
I’ve never told Marilyn this, but Colin was my first best friend. There was a time before Marilyn burst on the scene with her makeup and her costumes and her acting dreams. There was a time when Colin and I would sit together, and look at the world. He would write down the shade of green that shirt was, while I would contrast the smells of roses in flower boxes with gas exhaust. We would craft our observations into tales inspired, quite literally, by real life. I would come outside and see Colin waiting on my brownstone steps so we could walk to school. There were birthday parties with pastel balloons and butcream confections. There were cardboard valentines with those chalky hearts that said stuff like “be mine.” There had been conversation that went beyond those pastel candy hearts. Colin had listened to me. I hardly got in a word for Marilyn to listen to. Then Marilyn moved into the third brownstone in our apartment triangle. In true Marilyn style, she practically declared me her friend, and the truth was, everyone needed a friend like Marilyn. She is so unapologetically herself that she has become my refuge from everything that I am, and, I now realize, everything that I could be. She was jealous of Colin, and wanted me to believe in her above everyone else.
“I’m sorry I abandoned you, Colin. But don’t worry about me.”
“I know you do well on your own, Louise. Just let me believe in you for a second, so you can know what that feels like.”
“What are you talking about? Marilyn and I have been friends for years.”
“Please just call her Marge. You give into her elevated ego every time you call her that stupid stage name. You have been Marge’s friend, she has not been yours. Now, lets see. Oh I like this one about old Mrs. Mallory and her obsession with Bloomingdales. You’d love her hatbox collection.”
It takes me a moment to register that Colin is reading from my notebook, but then I dart past the Eden of snow-tipped lilies, romantic roses and pastel easter tulips that divides our houses and seize upon my written word.
“What have you done?”
“I’ve believed in you. I found your notebook on the steps yesterday and I brought your work to the Bayview Times. My dad is the editor, remember?”
I want to say that he had no right. That he is just an insignificant boy next door who had no right to read my thoughts, much less submit my stories for publication. But all that comes out is: ‘What if they don’t like my articles?”
“And what if they do? My father wants to publish your article, “Watch New York.” What if you, Louise, could have a spotlight of your own? Come on, we’ll pull a page from Marge’s book. Lets run away.”
The Bayview Times newsroom buzzes like a hive, if the queen bee is an editor always demanding something fresh, something new, or something real. There is something delightful about the typewriters on each desk, polished to their ebony-hued glory. There is something so freeing about having the authority to write a story the way you want it told. That familiar Click, Click, clack! of the typewriter keys as they imprint the page at the slightest press. The ping of the hidden bell when the end of a line is reached. The inky smell of the ribbon, the words marching across the page with the writer as captain. I give a confident knock on that heavy wall of a door, the final barrier between the head editor and I. When I emerge from the office as an almost published author, I sit at one of those empty desks in pride.
“You know Colin, I think Marge needs me to believe in her. I can’t let you replace her.”
“I’ll be your sometime friend. I’ll be in the space between. You believe in Marge, and I’ll believe in you.”
The Greatest Love I’d Never Had
Before her I wasn’t a fan of coconut. I wasn’t a fan of board games, night-time strolls, or chimichangas. Then she started washing her hair with coconut and inviting me to weekly game nights with her friends. We started taking a walk every Friday night at 7:45, the three blocks to Chelseys for games, and stopped at the food truck outside of our complex every time on our way back.
She always got the chimichanga. Every time she’d ask if I wanted a bite, and I always said no, and then she’d smile and shimmy her shoulders happily. I always ordered two carnitas, and she’d say yes when I offered a bite, even though we both knew she was going to scrunch up her nose and say she doesn’t like it nearly as much as hers.
She showed me the beauty in the most mundane things. From the day she moved in she made things around me brighter. The flowers she hung over the balcony brought honeybees, she practiced piano in the mornings while she drank tea at breakfast time, and damn that girl could cook. Everything she did caught my attention, from the food she’d make to the songs she’d play. There was nothing that went unnoticed when it came to her.
Georgia is, and always will be, the first person I really, truly loved. I didn’t even realize I loved her before I was too deep. One day we were just close friends, kind neighbors, and suddenly she consumed my thoughts. I’d loved before, as close to what I knew love could be as a teenager.
A month or two after she’d moved in she’d asked me to dinner, but I’d been seeing a girl named Angie for about four months and declined. Shortly after Angie and I broke up and I was getting ready to ask Georgia on a proper date she met Milo. They hit it off, and I started seeing another girl. Back and forth we went, when her and Milo were off again I was on again with someone else, and things never seemed to be free at the same time. But then there was this one time where she and Milo had a particularly nasty fight and were yet to rekindle, that she’d come over for dinner and a glass of wine. She told me about the big crush she’d had on me for a while after she’d moved in, and I think I would have told her about mine, too, if Milo hadn’t called her to let her know he was coming over. She excused herself and that was that.
This game of back and forth was just a harmless crush, our closeness came from our shared love of baking, reading, and music. Most mornings we ate our breakfasts separately, but still together. I’d call up to her balcony for help with my crosswords, and then she’d fill me in on her current favorite shows storyline. I never watched tv, I’d rarely know any of the series she’d tell me about, but if you asked me my favorite shows I’d have an entire list.
For a long time I always figured I’d marry that girl, but nothing really could have ever prepared me to actually watch her walk down the aisle. Every little thing seemed perfect that first moment I saw her, when the doors opened. My brain seemed to go on autopilot instantly. For so long I was mesmerized by her I barely even registered when she said ‘I Do’. There was a tremble behind it, nerves and excitement and happiness all wrapped up in those two little words. Suddenly she was leaning forward, and everyone watching sprung into motion as the kiss happened. Claps, cheers, a whistle from somewhere way in the back. It wasn’t until the officiant introduced Georgia and Milo as husband and wife that I realized that, at some point, I had started to clap.
Spiral stairs lead to the tops of the seemingly endless shelves. The curtains create a hurricane as the morning light cascades to reflect the dusty air. The scattered leaf begs any onlooker to dig through as if the promise of buried treasure lies among it.
The only treasure I need stands on tiptoe, reaching excitedly for another world of possibilities. Another written masterpiece slips from the towering bookcase. The rumble of an avalanche filled with Tolkien and Lewis tumbles to the floor.
The teary girl reaches, now, for Barrie to whisk her off to Neverland. Before reality crashes down again.
The Lion’s Mane
We all have our ideas of power couples and let me tell you, my dog and I were it. We walked the street every day--and that’s street, not streets; I didn’t have it that rough. I held that little puppy after she had been dragged behind someone on their bike, scared and alone and limping. It’s okay to scream in fear as long as fear doesn’t win. I told her I felt the same. Someone tried to break me to be what they wanted, even if it was just a bloody mess. I told her to put her back against mine and keep her eyes open. The war was in us, but we went at it together. We spent the days fighting and dreaming, and maybe we were fighting dreams.
She was good at perceiving danger. When I went at something hissing and spitting, she circled me with her lion’s mane up in warning, a low growl barely forming and sitting underneath her tongue. I crawled up from hell and she crawled up after me. The hurricane and the hellhound.
She never left my side. I stopped going outside, but that was still my side. All the hospital trips she spent cleaning up my mess at home and I just wanted to come home to her. She just wanted better things for me. She stayed with me despite the shift in our relationship. She welcomed the role of caretaker and lifegiver, alert and comfort. Through dreams of living in the trees to sick shifts where I almost became fertilizer for those same trees, she stayed with me.
She’s getting older now and I just want her to see that I’m making it better. I’ll make it.
For the times she stayed up all night to make sure I made it through the night.
For the blanket forts and bloodshot eyes.
For all the times we stayed alive.
When her back is ready to leave mine, I’ll stay with her.
The Drowned City
We stopped our boats in between two once soaring skyscrapers, now barely poking out of the serf like a child in the deep end. We checked our oxygen tanks one last time, then started our journey down into the once thriving metropolis. We traced the now obsolete obelisk down to the city floor.
This once proud beacon of a civilization laid in a state of sunken ruin. I had only heard stories about city life, the ocean had reclaimed most of the “old coast” when I was just a girl. I paused at an aged streetlight and closed my eyes, picturing the sweltering heat bouncing off the sidewalk and the hum of midday traffic. Millions of people pass each other like bees in a hive. It is hard to think that over a few decades these people were forced into a sort of westward expansion. Evicted from their homes by the deep blue abyss as the ocean staked its claim.
Although people had long been gone the city didn’t stay still for long. The “concrete jungle” is now home to a bustling network of rust and coral. Cold metal columns; the perfect skeleton for nature to breathe new life into. Busy streets now harboring new life just as vibrant and clamorous as the old.
As we slowly rose to the surface, I looked back at the city one last time. Its crumbled streets now home to sprawling reefs; a reminder of the shortcomings of man, but also the resilience of nature.
The Hard Lesson Learned
Almost all twenty-year-old college students are broke. I was certainly no exception, and like most broke college students I had a part-time job. A few of my friends worked security at one of the bars in town and they were looking to add a few more to the roster. I wasn’t the biggest guy, most of the guys who worked there were football players. I was big enough to fill out the uniform; a black shirt with SECURITY scrawled in white letters across the chest. The best part of the job, however, was the pay. They paid ten dollars under the table at the end of each shift. A $100-$120 night for relatively easy work was a dream come true!
Soon after I started, I realized that I actually liked bouncing very much. The sense of power it gave me was intoxicating. If I was working the door, then I was the one who determined who got into the club and who didn’t. I turned away guys with poorly chalked IDs, and let in groups of pretty girls whose IDs were just as poor. Working inside meant that I would get to break up a fight on the dance floor, or, occasionally “escort” a particularly drunk guy who had started to act a little too rowdy. Everyone respected the uniform. Or so I thought.
One snowy winter night, a few hours after opening, the club was at capacity. It seemed the weather didn’t deter anyone from going out. The air inside was heavy with the smell of sweat and cheap perfume. The cold air outside and the body heat of all the people inside made the atmosphere thick, muggy, and hard to breathe. My shirt clung to me like Saran wrap, damp with my sweat; or at least I hoped it was mine. The DJ was playing dance music. The bass was deep and thunderous in my chest, and the strobe lights from the dance floor made everyone look like they were moving in stop motion. The patrons were already starting to get antsy; it was taking longer than they would have liked for them to get their drinks. I already had to tell several of the less gentlemanly guys to watch what they were saying to the bartenders, and even escort one of them who responded to my threat with a middle finger to the door by the back of his neck. The night was shaping up to be anything but dull.
By midnight the beers were flowing and the dance floor was packed. Bodies were rubbing and grinding on each other, “dancing.” The barback already had to refill the bar with beer three times. The ice machine in the back could barely keep up with the demand for bucket after bucket of ice, and the patrons were no happier to wait for their drinks than they were hours earlier, getting even more restless. As I was escorting the barback to the bar from the stockroom, he was carrying two cases of beer and a plastic bin with several bottles of various liquors. I was clearing a path for him through the crowd when I heard someone say, “It looks like this round is on the house!” I quickly turned around to see one of the biggest guys I’d ever seen. This giant had to have been at least six-foot-six and easily weighed three hundred pounds. His head was as big as a basketball, and as round as one too. His hair was short-cropped like he had just gotten out of the military. His arms were so big that it looked like the seams of his white dress shirt were about to succumb to the strain, screaming for relief. He was reaching his catcher mitt-sized hand into the bin, clawing for a liquor bottle. The barback tried to jerk his load out of the man’s reach, but the floor was slick with melted snow and spilled drinks and the people dancing were too close together. His precious cargo fell from his hands crashing to the floor. Beer exploded everywhere, covering everyone in a ten-foot radius in a rain shower of suds.
Immediately I sprang into action. I snatched the liquor bottle out of his hands and told him that he needed to leave. By this time, several more bouncers were trying to navigate through the sea of bodies making their way to us. The giant didn’t seem to like the idea of relinquishing his stolen booze or that his night was being cut short, and he responded by punching me in the face. Fortunately, I saw it coming and I was able to turn my head slightly, avoiding the blow from landing squarely on my nose. I caught his punch just above my left eye, on the hard part of my forehead, but it still felt like getting hit with a cinder block. I managed to stay on my feet and lunged at him, pinning his arms against his sides as best I could. Reinforcements arrived to help subdue the large man. One bouncer, a defensive lineman who was even bigger than the man that punched me, took over and wrapped him up. It looked like two grizzly bears wrestling. The bouncer, winning, picked him up and began to carry him to the door. A few of the giant’s drunken friends decided to voice their displeasure over the situation by trying to free their friend from the bouncer’s stifling bearhug. One of his friends jumped on the bouncer’s back trying to put him in a chokehold. A second bouncer grabbed him by the hair and slammed him to the floor like a ragdoll. Another of the giant’s friends lunged at the two on the floor, throwing punches at his friends’ assailant like he was Mike Tyson. Shaking the cobwebs from my head I grabbed the guy swinging at the bouncer on the floor and put him in a headlock, dragging him out of the melee. That’s when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the square shape and black label of a Jack Daniel’s bottle making its way towards my head. It was followed by a searing flash of pain and a flash of white light that made the back of my eyes feel as though they were on fire. Then darkness.
I opened my eyes and saw flashing red and blue lights. I saw snowflakes falling from the sky towards my face. Tickling my nose as they landed on them. There were people shouting, but it was muffled, like I was listening to someone speak underwater. Then darkness.
It would be two more days until I opened my eyes again. My mother was sitting next to my bed in a chair holding my hand. She had clearly been crying, bags under her eyes and her mascara long washed away. My father stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders, his brow creased with worry. I was in the hospital.
Over the next couple of days, the police came and took my statement about what had happened. They told me that one of the giant’s friends had picked up one of the liquor bottles from the floor and hit me in the side of the head with it. They also told me that the giant had been charged with assault, and his friend assault with a weapon. Doctors came and went. They told me that I had suffered a perforated eardrum and that was why things had sounded so muffled. They also told me that I had a slight hairline fracture of my skull. It hadn’t required surgery, but the impact had caused my brain to swell and because of that, they had placed me in a medically induced coma.
Most people learn that they are not invincible at an early age. They learn this when they fall off their bike or out of a tree. Others learn it when they are in a car crash or someone close to them dies. For me, it took a crappy part-time job in college and a Jack Daniels bottle to the head to learn this valuable lesson.
Letter To My Past Self
Dear Sophomore Self,
Hey girl! I just wanted to write a letter to you and give you some advice about the future. I know that you are going through a rough time right now and some days have you feeling like life isn't worth it but I promise, better days are ahead.
Life isn’t going to be simple for you growing up, but you are a strong person and you can get through anything. Make sure you remember to hug your loved ones extra tight and do not take the time you have with them for granted - especially Travis. God decided that it was his time to go. You may not understand why he left you and your family but just know that he loved you dearly.
Your dad is a whole other topic we need to discuss. It may seem as if he doesn’t care for you but believe me he does. You should stop giving him such a hard time about everything because you know he would give you the world if he could. The relationship with your dad is an important one, please don’t ruin it.
The upcoming stages of your life are going to be challenging. Focus on yourself and work on bettering your mental health. You know that boy you have been in love with for three years? Maybe don’t get so attached to him because, unfortunately, he isn’t going to stick around for very long. It may feel like the end of the world but trust me, it isn’t. He is just one of the many silly boys you are going to fall for. You are young and will have time to find the “right guy”.
Many people are going to come and go in your life but the good ones will stay. Your best friend, Hannah, is one of those good ones. Don’t let the fight you guys are in now determine your relationship, it isn’t worth it. You will be just fine, give her some time. Stop taking her for granted because you aren’t going to have her forever. I know you feel alone right now and many people are making things harder for you. Ignore them, let them say what they have to say because in a few years, they are going to mean nothing to you. Like I said before, work on yourself.
When it comes to sports, my advice is to push yourself harder than you are now, don't be lazy. I know you plan on playing volleyball in college and that dream is slowly coming true. You have so much passion for sports, do not let anyone take that away from you. Do not lose your heart, kid, because you have a big one. So many people are going to try to take advantage of that. Never let that stop you from caring for others. Last, but not least, don’t rush through the years, you’ll regret it. Life is short, make the best out of it and follow your dreams, kid.
Your Future Self
Waiting For The Last Train
What a lifeless subway station. I saw a rat scurry past on the tracks, its hair dirty and roughed up. A pungent cocktail of engine fumes and sewage filled my nostrils, and gave me an urge to sneeze or throw up my dinner. “The last train is delayed for… five minutes.”
“Ugh!” Stomping on my heel, I turned away towards the magazine stand, glowing above in neon letters was ‘Metro’.
“Help you, missy?” Asked the squid in the trash can.
“Not tonight, Beau, but thank you.”
“Anytime.” He saluted. The string of lights down to the stairs flickered as direct trains passed in a roaring and discomforting shake. Groaning again, I leaned down on one of the pillars. I read the advertisements as I heard a train come down the line. Perhaps the five minutes were up.
Then it stopped. The clicking of my high heels was all that echoed now. Another set of heels came clamoring down the iron steps, but no one was there. “Hey Beau, what is going on here?” The tentacles rose out of the trash.
“Rush for the last train it seems.”
I laughed, “There’s no one here.”
“Is that so?” He pushed up and looked around. “Nope, you’re not the only one.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a whole crowd waiting for the last train.” Again, I looked back. The dirty cream station was empty. “Two eyes doesn’t mean you see everything. You are alive.” I was shaken up, but I hadn’t bothered to ask Beau because he was too deep into his magazine. Standing on the platform, I looked both ways.
“Hello?” A train was breaking the tunnel. As an invisible line came to a sudden halt, the lights cut out. “Beau? Explain the lights?”
“Train’s here.” I heard the flipping of a page, Beau read in the dark. Uncommon practice nowadays. The lights were on again and in came this track inspector with old gear. A lantern squealed in his clenched fist, he looked up at me.
“What are you waiting for?”
“But what are you really waiting for is my question.” He came up and placed his shoulders against the platform, “A young girl like yourself ought to be top side and not having to ride with the dead.”
“Yeah, you don’t see them, but they’re all standing behind you.” I turned back but all of it was a vast space. “Legs were made for you to stand, walk, and move forward in life. Why wait for a vessel that kills that factor?”
“He’s right.” Beau chimed in, “It’s sad to watch the dead drear in their sorrow. Suffering because they don’t walk the path.”
“What is the path?” I asked.
“Topside is where you bump into all kinds of things.”
“But I’m scared.”
“Don’t be, honey. It’s okay to feel a little nervous but a girl like you had plenty of heart to use those feet.” I stepped back from the train track. Reversing to the steps, I saw the inspector wave as the last train rode in.
Beau waved a tentacle, “I’m going to miss you, doll. No need for you to grumble over a train! Safe travels.” I said goodbye, started up the steps, and slowly walked up to street level. The last train tugged into the tunnel and carried the shadows with it. There was no last stop for me, only forwards.