About four years ago, I took a trip to Cancun with my friends. We had already completed our first semester of college in flashy East Coast establishments — Harvard, Amherst, Columbia, UPenn, and NYU — and we were eager to do something more typical of the American college experience. After 18 years of living in the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley and successfully “escaping” into the pressure cooker of East Coast private schools, we felt justified in indulging in a cheesy holiday for a few days.
Recently, I told someone that once upon a time, I had taken a trip to Cancun. He looked at me incredulously and responded, “Wow. You were such a different person.” Smirk and shrug was my silent response. I really just wanted to legally drink a margarita when I was 19. The trajectory of my personhood did not simply evolve from Cancun partier to Oxford grad student, point A to point B. And I didn’t feel like such a different person back then, either.
At night, when my friends and I would look for venues to go dancing (er, Señor Frog’s?) I ran into young boys and girls selling hemp-and-bead-and-shell friendship bracelets that Americans not unlike myself would buy for a few pesos and wear them as souvenirs of a wild week in Cancun, forgetting the fact that they were made by tiny children that stood outside of the bars, watching drunk tourists gyrate against strip poles to the latest top 40 hits. They held out their arms like my little sister always did for a hug, only their arms were drooping with friendship bracelets. My sister did not need to sell anything for a hug.
I did not want a souvenir, but I left with many questions about the place and about how gross I felt about being there.
I did learn that I never was and never will be the kind of person who enjoys Cancun, even with my best friends.
But I should probably stop telling people that I once took a trip to Cancun to party, because I don’t have enough time to explain myself every time. (“The drinks were sugary! I ate fish. I didn’t wear enough sunscreen. Kelly and I danced to pass the time.”) I just wanted some frozen margaritas and a natural tan and I officially became an anthropology major focused on globalized interpersonal relationships and social inequalities the year after that.
And in spite of the delicious daiquiris of Cancun, I spent all my spring breaks in college studying in the library or interning, because I really am terrible at this concept of “partying.”
If my little sister is reading this, please do not go to Cancun when you are in college. I recommend Paris. Always choose Paris. (Yes, I just quoted Lauren Conrad.)
You’re never too old for bedtime stories, but I have outgrown the ones where the princess and prince fall in love at first sight and live happily ever after. Nowadays, I listen to “When Love Arrives” by Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, two of my favorite young poets/spoken word artists, if I need a bedtime story.
On my three-mile walk home last night, I took as many meandering paths as possible, eager to avoid the Friday night hoards of tourists and adolescent high school students that populate the streets of Oxford on summer nights.
Of course, I had forgotten that dark paths lend themselves to stolen kisses. I ran into many teenage couplings, crop tops and skinny jeans and braces, mashed up against the old stone walls of the city. “I love you,” some of them whispered, “I won’t forget you.” Some of them just kept “canoodling,” as my British high school chemistry teacher would say, while I briskly walked by, awkwardly staring up at the clear night sky and apologizing silently for my disturbance. During the academic term, I would walk past drunken undergraduates leaning against these walls for support. So, I tucked my 23-year-old cynicism in bed for the night and kept smiling toward the next stoplight.
Teenage romance sounds a lot more ideal in the sort of books that become movies.
In my history of photography class as an undergraduate, we read a lot of Roland Barthes and memorized a lot of black-and-white images, but the main gist of the class was that photographs always lie and they have always lied since their invention, even though they appear to reveal the truth.
There was a young woman who always sat in front of me in the lecture hall. Like me, she would take notes on her laptop, frantically transcribing our professor’s words in paragraphs instead of bullet points. (I studied by re-reading my professor’s exact words — entire lectures, sometimes — out loud in my own words. It was how I learned to mimic my professor’s stylistic preferences, choice adjectives, and trajectories of thought on exams. He made up a lot of words. I still used them.) I don’t remember at all what she looked like, but I know that every day before lecture, she would look at the same guy’s Facebook, scrolling down his wall to see if he had new posts, lingering on his albums and tagged photos.
And then one day, she saw that he had changed his profile photo to one in which he had his arms around another female. The professor was explaining Barthes’ concept of punctum — punctum being the sharp, wounding detail in a photograph that holds the viewer’s gaze.
She didn’t take any notes in class that day. I should have offered to email her a copy of mine.
I woke up relatively early — 6:30am — in time for a run this morning, but when I came back, I went back to nap for another hour in my sweaty tee and my Nike leggings. I napped with a nervous energy; I woke up with my heart beating faster than usual and the fear that my life was going flash before my eyes and that I was never going to find any more meaning than I did this morning, chasing butterflies and bunnies on Port Meadow (it is exactly what it sounds like) and feeling the pain in my left ankle — an aching pain that hasn’t left my ankle since my sophomore year of college, a literal Achilles tendon pain that reminds me of my own fatal weaknesses as a mortal every morning when I slip on my running shoes and every evening when I slip on my stilettos. “Beware of getting hurt even further,” my heel reminds me.
It has been many months since I’ve written, personally or for an audience, and the same justification I’ve always used still applies: words feel permanent, and I don’t feel comfortable writing my own thoughts when I am in a transitory state. I am still in a so-called transitory state as I write this — I just graduated (in absentia — which means I couldn’t be bothered to participate in a ceremony and I’m just planning to pick up my diploma) on Monday with my master’s degree in women’s studies from Oxford, and I just booked my one-way plane ticket back to New York on August 30th. I am homeless and jobless and definitely not the idealistic 18-year-old who moved into her Columbia dorm in a pair of high heels and curled hair. I’ve saved up some money to support myself frugally (thank goodness I voluntarily enjoyed eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches even when I was an intern at Vogue) while I look for a full-time stable job in New York, and I intend to make one of my dreams come true, at least, even if it’s just making enough income to finally have a dog (and okay, a diamond, too) as my best friend.
Oh, digression — back to my old habit of not writing while in transition — I’ve come to realize that we will always be in transitory states, and if I wait until I feel “settled” to jot down my personal thoughts, I will pick up my pen one day and regret all the days I was too scared to write. Fear is a terrible excuse for not writing, especially when you already lie awake in bed wondering if you could turn your thumping heartbeats into turns of phrase that make sense to someone else.
I visited my friend in Cambridge, England this past weekend and I remember lying awake in the middle of the night, unable to fall asleep because he kept snoring really loudly. When he woke up, I teased him about it, not realizing that he didn’t know that he snored at all. He even wore earplugs to anticipate the possibility that I snored. (I do not snore. Yet.)
There are a lot of obvious things we do not know about ourselves.
Traveling through casual space Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns To a destination where all signs tell us It is possible and imperative that we learn A brave and startling truth
And when we come to it To the day of peacemaking When we release our fingers From fists of hostility And allow the pure air to cool our palms
When we come to it When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean When battlefields and coliseum No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters Up with the bruised and bloody grass To lie in identical plots in foreign soil
When the rapacious storming of the churches The screaming racket in the temples have ceased When the pennants are waving gaily When the banners of the world tremble Stoutly in the good, clean breeze
When we come to it When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders And children dress their dolls in flags of truce When land mines of death have been removed And the aged can walk into evenings of peace When religious ritual is not perfumed By the incense of burning flesh And childhood dreams are not kicked awake By nightmares of abuse
When we come to it Then we will confess that not the Pyramids With their stones set in mysterious perfection Nor the Gardens of Babylon Hanging as eternal beauty In our collective memory Not the Grand Canyon Kindled into delicious color By Western sunsets
Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji Stretching to the Rising Sun Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor, Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores These are not the only wonders of the world
When we come to it We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace We, this people on this mote of matter In whose mouths abide cankerous words Which challenge our very existence Yet out of those same mouths Come songs of such exquisite sweetness That the heart falters in its labor And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet Whose hands can strike with such abandon That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness That the haughty neck is happy to bow And the proud back is glad to bend Out of such chaos, of such contradiction We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it We, this people, on this wayward, floating body Created on this earth, of this earth Have the power to fashion for this earth A climate where every man and every woman Can live freely without sanctimonious piety Without crippling fear
When we come to it We must confess that we are the possible We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world That is when, and only when