I sit here knowing I shouldn’t write about school stuff or the things that make my eyebrows squint downwards so the images in my head can replace my vision. The creases on my face tighten almost rhythmically at the thought of anything abstract. Yet all that spirals around in my brain are the things I’ve been learning.
When I close my eyes at night I have dreams I’m dining with Luis Barragán or Bijoy Jain. Walking past Ruth Moore sharpening her pencil for her next novel with the shavings clinging to beige and brown bathroom tiles. I close my eyes and imagine myself on an island in the middle of the ocean with a lighthouse and a good book. Would I trust its might against any storm that brushes over? Or a creaky schooner that instead shifts in the water- secured by no landmass does this make us safer?
I wake up from a nap with creases on my hands that fall beneath me. I look down at them and read the words of Baldwin or Morrison creased onto the etches of my skin. Or instead of waking up naturally, I wake up to an alarm that plays tales of my lupine-lady-landlord-laughing lionhearted friend, Brenda, asking me to take her to the post office, grocery store, pharmacy, then library (in that order so I don’t have to make any lefts) for her weekly confession of dependence.
Subconsciously a small segment of my brain dissects any interaction with the filter of “how does Marx’s theory of materialism manifest into this situation?” Why it does, your guess is better than mine.
I often wish I could turn my brain off. Sometimes the organic squiggly lines you see on diagrams of brains look more like continents and countries, oceans and lakes, an atlas of all my ideas. Constantly asking myself is this some sort of obsessive-compulsive tendencies or am I really just different? Or maybe I’m no different and this is just all what we’re secretly thinking. Maybe everyone stares outside their windows to look for sparrows.
It used to be easy to write fiction. But now I find myself finding the concept of anything outside of what I am truly experiencing to be egregious. Instead, I think about places I’ve been to and experiences I’ve had. I finally realized I’m not a visual or auditory learner like they try to break us into in elementary school. I’m a spatial learner. In my head, I remember where streets in foreign countries lean to the left or end at an intersection. You ask me to remember my surprise eighth birthday and I can tell you which way in the cafeteria I was facing.
So my question then is, how do we escape the spatialization of our brains that know not when day and night end. Do we dissociate or push it towards the back of our brain where we store our less pleasant memories. Or do we embrace it? Do we talk to our friends about Ruth Moore’s pencil sharpener and how we care which street you prefer over another? Until my brain is no longer occupied by my classes I wonder what I can fill the stories part of my blog with, the dreams part of my blog with, the spaces part of my blog with. Maybe I don’t always need a map to guide me. Maybe it’s okay if I don’t have a direction for this place, right now, right here.
I have this backup plan that if my life turns out to be a total failure, devoid of success, passion, and whatever else I determine subconsciously to be continuous with my evolution. Then, if all else fails, I can run away and start all over with mountains and bushes of blueberries and an old banjo carved from an oak tree. A van on new roads with different spatialized regulations that I can fixate over; only my eyes see a scene; drawn to looking for sidewalks or lines in the middle of the road, but bless my beautiful brain, or at least I tell myself. If I run away from here and the soon-to-be future which seems scary, at least I have a warm hug and a forever infinite cup of eight ounces of coffee that looks like mountain peaks and coral reefs. Old abandoned mansions on islands not yet colonized by the tourist industry: oh wait then the perpetrator would be me. I wonder if there exists a place with books for walls and pencils for cars. A place so far removed even your favorite writer hasn’t heard about it. Where your neighbor’s place is dotted with forsythias; a house overgrown with green meadows and purple ivy. Glistening, the sunsets every night and we go to bed with warm bellies and think about vast cities. So maybe that’s it; we’ll always be dreaming of someplace else more ferocious and dynamic with cars instead of pencils and walls instead of books. You know, real-life cities where you can sit at a cafe and still get lost in people-watching for hours. Girls with purple headbands and chunky loafers. Where then does a place with the two of us exist in the mountains, past the creaks and meadows, over the rolling tide of the cold icy beach? Behind those two tall trees that rely on each other; so intertwined you could never take one down without them both crashing down; likewise, I guess you could never love one without loving the other. I imagine this place in my head with my eyes open still peering into the world I currently am in, and I think that this is that alternative reality I’m imagining. This isn’t a last resort for if my life turns out to be a total failure, this is a life I’m dreaming of. Like heavy cream whipped fresh and strawberries still tart, yet to be ripened by artificial spoonfuls of sugar turned natural by smiles and sticky hands. I ask myself is this a last resort or is this my destiny? A fox stands in the middle of the road in my dreams when I’m reminiscing about urban planning and cities, but how ultimately, I want to be by myself in the country. Or maybe with someone, I love, but mostly, with love I have for myself. I think back to saltwater, really cold salt, so cold it almost loses that sticky feeling; I baptize myself every time I choose to jump in and that is the most autonomy I will ever receive. Meadows of wildflowers beckon me and a steady hum of the people I love urge me to not isolate my dreams, and so I run on, in this field that has no end. Where the stars meet and the horizon begins; my oh my I know not where that space lies. What I do know is that a life, or a second chance- last-ditch resort needs to be joyous and pretty. Itchy like wildflowers brushing over your naked ankles on a windy day- perfect prep for a dip in the cool lake. I want a life where even my last resort is good enough.
Recently in my course “African American Childhoods” we’ve been reading literature ranging from pre- Harlem Renaissance to earlier work on the black existence in the Jim-Crow South. In Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk my class has been working on this essential idea of “double consciousness.” Inevitably, it wasn’t until I was sitting in my room listening to some awesome music on my crappy ten-dollar speaker that I realized a connection between two brilliant minds that I just had to make.
Some of the books we’ve read in this class thus far are:
Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson, and Passing by Nella Larsen.
So how does this theory of double consciousness relate to a song released in 2019? The brilliant Brittany Howard released a solo album called Jaime after a great run with her infamous band, Alabama Shakes. Jaime, meant to be a personal expedition of Howard’s personal life is full of bangers, but “Goat Head” is by far my favorite. Immediately this song examines the historical and personal legacy of racism in this country and in Howard’s own family. So often is the idea of being “mixed race” fetishized, stigmatized, and completely misunderstood in contemporary art. Weirdly racist tones of;
I don’t care if you’re black, green, or white…
White girls wanting to have sex with black men so they can have a “mixed kid” with “blue eyes, light brown skin, and long eyelashes”
Which side of your family do you like more?
With “Goat Head” I got the first couple of metaphors: I got the green tomatoes and that god has blue eyes. But it wasn’t until I listened to this song repeatedly until I heard that last meaningful line: “I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?”
It is not my position to speak on the actual personal implications of this subject but this post is meant to amplify Howard’s insane intelligence. Howard who’s a raging lesbian, rockstar, and black woman, is the first artist I’ve heard use such a complex theory of “double consciousness” and turn it into a line of lyrics in an insanely rhythmic and catchy song. While a class full of mostly privileged white kids talked about DuBois in my English class for 80 minutes, Howard summed up the true, whole experience in this one line. So as I go back to the beginning of my story, you know, sitting on my floor in my room listening to my shitty speaker as I was doing homework… I can’t help but think how blind Academia is, or perhaps students like myself, how blind we are when we don’t include voices like Howards? Or maybe, maybe I’ll just have to ask my professor if I can aux next class.
See, tomatoes are green
And cotton is white
My heroes are black
So why God got blue eyes?
My daddy, he stayed
My grandmama’s a maid
My mama was brave
To take me outside
‘Cause mama is white
And daddy is black
When I first got made
Guess I made these folks mad
See, I know my colors, see
But what I wanna know is…
Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back?
I guess I wasn’t s’posed to know that, too bad
I guess I’m not ‘posed to mind ’cause I’m brown, I’m not black
My college friend had to watch this absolutely stunning 80s film for her cities class and as I viewed these nostalgic and sterile clips I found a complete connection to my own viewership in my hometown of Princeton, NJ. All though there are a lot of public small spaces in Princeton similar to the ones Whyte examined, I will be focusing on three in particular: Woodrow Wilson School and the Fountain of Freedom or “Woody Woo”, Hinds Plaza on Witherspoon Street, and Palmer Square.
This post is a good example of writing about the spaces part of the name in Stories Dreams & Spaces.
I want to note that this post here is merely an introduction to my exploration, I want to be able to examine these spaces closely and in person, which requires me to be back in Princeton obviously. But until I go back “home”, I think it is at least worth noting the connection between these three spaces and Whyte’s film. So much like my book reviews on this blog, this introduction will only be a brief review.
Most specifically the space I connected to the most with regards to the film was Woody Woo. Definitely the biggest connection to the movie, I found it could be looked at in the lens that many of his categories explore: the usage of trees, sit-able areas, water, etc. While for right now I will not be diving into the specific technicalities I will say the nostalgia of this 80s film reminded me of the nostalgia I had with this fountain. Before a swimming spot was merely a google away, Woody Woo was where all the local children would go to cool off. You’d meet a vast array of people as you swam/waded in the shallow and (probably filthy) fountain water. But you’d also bask in the complete joy of interacting with this space that seemed like a magical realm for a child. Now, even as a 20-year-old, I find myself pulled back to the fountain with its vast array of sit-able spaces, tree cover, and division yet inclusion from the busy road parallel.
I plan on exploring the specifics of Hinds Plaza and Palmer Square when I am able to physically observe the spaces some more. So let this be an inspiration for a new prescription of glasses I can use when I head back to Princeton. My friend kept remarking on how Whyte’s interruptions were so true yet mostly go unnoticed throughout our lives. Yet as someone who has always found a deep connection to what he refers to as “small urban spaces”, I found Whyte’s film to be liberating. For the first time, I heard words and saw images that summed up my own opinion on these spaces.
One of my favorite movies of all time undoubtedly has to be Moonrise Kingdom by Wes Anderson. It’s the kind of movie where no matter how many times I drink in its scenes soaked in a yellow tint of childhood nostalgia and accompanied by a soundtrack you absorbed from your grandma’s record player- no matter how many times I never seem to get sick of watching it. I watch Moonrise Kingdom and notice something new every time. As I grow older I relate to different characters and get different subtle jokes, and as my eyes bask in familiarity I realize that I wish to live in the actual scenes of New Penzance Island. When I got the opportunity to work in a small museum nestled on an island off the coast of Maine with a beautiful lighthouse and forests, swamps, creeks, and mountains just waiting to be adventured on- I knew part of my fantasy was coming true. But it wasn’t until I took a cramped ferry off of Mount Desert Island from Bass Harbor to Swan’s Island that I found myself surrounded by Anderson’s fantasy, or perhaps my own.
When I drove my small Toyota Yaris onto the ferry I thought about how weird it was for a transportation vehicle to be transported by another one. I imagined all the fish and waves and seaweed-covered shells holding this big boat up. Fog surrounded our voyage and even the vision of twenty feet starboard was rare. When we arrived at the island it was only until I drove off the ferry when I realized my phone lacked service and therefore google maps: I really was stranded in a foreign place completely by myself. But it is just an island, right? How hard is it to get lost? I followed the car in front and turned right. Before I knew it I was driving on a foggy-covered piece of land in the middle of the grand ocean. I swear I saw swans fly overhead.
Eventually, I made my way to the lighthouse where I met Sage. A local teenager born on the island, daughter of lobsterman and badass who swam the six miles in the freezing water to the mainland to raise money. Sage was essentially the lighthouse’s keeper and as we talked our conversation went from lighthouse guardianship to using the credit card scanner square to make transactions for our customers and visitors. I felt like I met a long-lost sister. As I made it to the top of the lighthouse I wondered if the heavens would part and the steeple rupture in a storm- I wondered if we would be left hanging by the strength of our own fingers like Anderson’s greatest scene of conflict in the movie. I ate lunch on a cliff face and listened to the birds rustle in the high grass around me. What is it like to be completely devoid of all constructs you’ve created for yourself on the mainland I wonder? Now I know.
I went on to explore and eventually made it to the local quarry (Sage’s recommendation). The one-way loop of lobster shacks and small houses felt straight out of a map from a children’s book. I walked to the top of the quarry hundreds of feet above and peered down on the locals swimming and soaking up the fun. Seagulls sprinkled the water like the water was salty, not fresh, and it felt like another scene from a favorite movie: Garden State. I had my Zach Braff moment and screamed all my sorrows into the abyss. Then, I went swimming. I dove into the water which felt warmer than salt but colder than a lake. I swam to the dock and jumped off knowing if I let myself dive too deep I might just reach the Earth’s true core. Where was I? How was this place real?
Next, I went to Sand Beach which required a journey of weaving through a densely green forest. When I arrived it wasn’t tropical like I imagined but blanketed in that same morning fog. I dove into the colder water and realized I wanted to stay in forever. I climbed onto rocks and jumped off like I was a little child. Swimming at a mysterious beach at the edge of the world all by yourself gives you a sense of freedom that is indescribable. I headed back and eventually after a long wait made it onto the very end of the ferry. As I waited at the cove’s edge I couldn’t help but ponder about the places I wondered, reaching farther than the sight of my binoculars. Swan’s Island is beyond beautiful. But perhaps more than that I was enchanted by this idea of my movie fantasy melding into my present reality. As I sat on a rock with the icy water lapping onto my feet I wondered where that mystical fantasy even ends when places like this really exist in the supposed real world. Real-world creations of realities that exclude such beauty seem to me, more made-up than a world full of this much wonder. Why do we live in a construct so devoid of this beauty and call it real life when a made-up world full of true allurement actually exists? But then I remember that I am just a visitor here. I am not a resident whose ancestors lived on this land for centuries only to be brutalized by the hands of European imperialism. I am not the daughter of a lobsterman who does not have enough money for school supplies. This brought me back to the quote I included in my presentation on lighthouses:
“Caught up in a capitalist economy which concentrates wealth and power in ever fewer metropolitan centers, both islanders and mainlanders prefer to live by the islands they nourish in their minds and hearts rather than live on the islands themselves”
(55, John R. Gillous, Places Remote and Islanded).
Maybe that is why I loved Swan’s Island so much. Moonrise Kingdom created such a fantasy of this island in my head that when I experienced it for a day I felt in touch with that physicality. Ask me to experience that rawness every day and I might have a different answer. But for that one day, all by myself, I went to Swan’s Island and had perhaps the best day of my life.
I’ve written fairly extensively on this idea of “home”. Between my reflection on voluntary and involuntary spaces in Laura Ingalls Wilder books, my take on houselessness during the covid19 pandemic in a response to an article published by N+1 “No Shelter”, in my own novel’s premise is an examination of the feeling of belonging, and my recent nosedive into delimitation in Lighthouses and islands, I thought I had consulted this topic enough. But it wasn’t until I was driving on route 102 like I do every single day here on Mount Desert Island that I realized my own personal relationship with home has changed too.
When I was little I used to have nightmares that we were going to move. Most of the time in the dreams we didn’t even move far, but just the thought of leaving our home scared me beyond measure. I didn’t understand how anyone would want to leave their warn wooden banisters, musty basements, stained carpets with just the right food indentations, doorbell that rings a little too loud. I never wanted to live in a mansion because that would mean I’d have to leave my home and that would be too big of an ask. And it was a real fear when I moved to college, homesickness, that feeling you get in a sterile hotel room with rough sheets that make you dream of the robustness of used and old blankets back home. Would that same alienation follow me as I moved out of the place I lived in my whole life?
The short answer is no. I never really got homesick at college. Mind you I had a great experience and was kept busy with schoolwork, friends, and basketball, but that nostalgia for a smell and a touch never followed me like I expected it would. Soon, when I was trapped back in New Jersey during the covid19 pandemic I would actually have that longing for my dorm room: that was the first step in realizing that perhaps home isn’t merely four walls and family photos on the wall.
In my past engagements of writing and literature that forced me to question the ideas of home, houselessness, imperialization, delimitation, and the taking up of space, I’ve inevitably approached the topics with evidence-based analysis. But if I separate myself from the confines of a good book or the literature about islands, if I really question my own thought-process separate from academia or accounts from other people- what is my own relationship with home like? Why as I was driving on route 102, past the saltwater inlet and at the light turning right onto Sound Drive did I feel this unsteady wave? Not a wave of homesickness, not a wave of knowing homelessness, and not a wave of feeling like I was entirely home on that right-hand turn, but, somewhere right in the middle.
“My Home is Flannel sheets and Olive oil rings on the counter and Solid wooden doors with cracked paint and Blue tile bathroom with grout that really needs a clean and That house smell that your friends tell you your house has Toilet paper without the cardboard roll- save the trees!!!!!!! Furniture we got from when my uncle sold his second house Food that tastes like how my mom hugs, how my dad talks Coins that someone left on the table, waiting to go upstairs A piano with three trombones and two and a half clarinets Hillside is my home in the summer and it is safe and familiar A refuge for crickets and mice and dragonflies and ants and Warm, metallic water to wash my hands and feet and face”
But now I wonder if home is even more. I am not going to deny how bringing my physical objects into my new spaces helps me feel comforted and homely. But I’ve also found a disponibility in the old constructs I considered vital to my idea of home. I find home while driving on 102, the windows hand-cranked down just a bit to let the breeze whisper over my sunkissed face; I find home in that feeling because all of the aspects I ritualized in my home have become present in my own self. Through maturity, or life lessons, or hardships, or heartbreak- through happiness and discovery the hardy-wood light blue walls of the house I’ve lived in my whole life has become synonymous with my own skin.
When I am driving on 102 after a long but productive day at the work I love, after a two and a half-mile run and an ocean dip, towards a place where I will be with people that make me smile endlessly- when I am driving, then, I am happy. A happy me is a home for me.
Maybe that’s what it means to grow old; to find a home within yourself. After all, it is impossible to miss something when it is always with you- or is it? Perhaps and maybe even more importantly, what triggers that connection to home within myself should be idealized more: happiness. When I am happy I am home and that is one of the biggest life lessons I have ever learned.
Having a crush in high school is already hard enough. Add a layer of compulsive heterosexuality and a drop for one’s inability to safely be out and a perfect creation of doomed queer relationships arises from the ashes.
This is the hardest and most vulnerable piece I’ve written for my blog, so bear with me.
We are set up to fail. Queer youth in relationships not only have to deal with the normal parts of a juvenile and introductory exploration of one’s emotions with another individual, but the systematic cultural inequity that comes with queerness. We not only have to deal with the note-passing and gossip, but the reality that a crush could turn into violence. That our parents, teachers, and peers see us as not simply boys and girls being young and reckless but as children unworthy of acceptance, unworthy of the right to exist, and unworthy of the simple right to have a crush.
In all the years I played high school basketball I never got changed in the locker room. I didn’t want the trope of the predatory-lesbian to ruin my already unique physical presentation. I mastered the empty scroll of my phone when my teammates were merely existing in a world of physicality they never second-guessed. But I did.
And then when we realize we’re gay or bi or definitely not straight, then we have to reconcile with our current crushes and our past friendships. We don’t avoid telling our friends merely for added suspense but because it could lead to our expulsion from groups of people we’ve known our whole life. And when it actually becomes plausible to enter a same-sex relationship you might as well be Princess Diana and the press.
For the small minority of queer youth that has had the ability, privilege, and situational circumstances that allow for the engagement into a romantic relationship, oftentimes (I’ve realized) it ends in extreme heartbreak. Why is that? Why does the imploding breakup of two queer kids in high school hurt more than that of their straight ones?
Take my advice as a queer former high school student in a relationship. We were idolized, fetishized, talked about- expectations about our end-date, our engagement, and future kids even projected by almost strangers. But we were also trailblazers. We wore pantsuits and held hands in our classes, queer students younger than us said we were the reason they felt safe to come out. We broke expectations in the halls but outside of school later, we’d break each other’s hearts.
When a group of white boys said the n-word, the queer and black kids united together to try to hold them responsible. We had this almost maternal-like presence among all the marginalized folks at our school, a pressure I thought I could handle. I thought I fell in love with someone because of simple attraction, it was only after my relationship ended when I realized maybe I fell in love because my ex was the only other [out] person. When you’re queer in high school not only are you looking for a needle in a haystack in order to find a partner but a needle that is silver, not straw color like the rest. To be queer in high school is to say, in order to make just that first step, you have to make an act of political heroism by coming out.
Queer breakups hurt more because your first bonding moment was simply the act of being queer. That, not a shared love for a sport or a musical group, is what initially and inevitably first brings you together. Then, when the breakup comes, you in a way feel like you’re breaking up with that first shared trait: your own queerness. Your mind races as you think of all the things you did wrong or could have avoided to save the relationship: therefore your own identity is questioned and examined. It’s deeper than how you forgot about your anniversary or gave a bad Valentine’s Day present. Did you really love the person or did you love that you finally found someone you could love? We’re forced to navigate these uncharted and intensely deep waters with absolutely no representation to help guide us. Maps, compasses, sonar navigation, these things were created with only heterosexuality in mind.
Audre Lorde wrote,
“When I live through pain without recognizing it, self-consciously, I rob myself of the power that can come from using that pain, the power to fuel some movement beyond it. I condemn myself to reliving that pain over and over and over whenever something close triggers it. And that is suffering, a seemingly inescapable cycle.”
I have felt pain but now it gives me power.
So how do we break this vicious cycle? First, we create new fantasies where the queer relationship is not romanticized and void of the inherent tinge that our capitalist-based system forever holds over us. That is to say, under our economic global system of capitalism, queer people will never be truly liberated so stop telling young queer people that it’s possible to come out with no negative consequences. Do not tell them that because gay marriage was “legalized” by the white house a couple of years ago you can be safe wherever. Perhaps this take is cynical, or perhaps this take is just understanding reality. Let us teach queer kids that homophobia is so deeply ingrained in our systems that even when they feel it is safe to come out they will always face oppression. Warn them, prepare them, educate them. Do not tell your gay son that his future will be full of rainbows and sparkles. Teach him that no matter how good his love is, he will forever be fighting uphill. And most importantly teach him to become a revolutionary so that wecan liberate our humanity from the wretches of neoliberalism that sustains the foundation for bigger marginalizations such as homophobia.
See we fail when we mask the violence, when we convince ourselves that we have done enough, and, that there is not more to be done. It is when we say racism is of the past, same-sex marriage is already legalized, and the Holocaust is over and done that we don’t condone violence, but ignore it and forget it. Instead, teach our youth of these tragedies, show them the systems in their present lives that continue to shape them. Raise our kids to question power structures and preserve the lessons of history. Show our kids that change towards the liberation of groups of people is a forever but vital battle that requires systematic upheaval.
To me, it seems like love is mostly doomed for queer youth. We’ve simplified queerness as this one-step process of merely “coming out.” But what happens after? What happens when you get into a relationship that looks like none of the others around you? When you are forced to not make decisions about where to get dinner but how to stay safe in the hallways? Why do we convince queer youth that once you’re out, it is all better? Why don’t we fight to make that next step in human relationships just as accepted? Queer youth will forever have it harder even when they are past that “first step”. Until we talk about it, provide representation and academic analysis, show real-life examples of healthy relationships, until then, we will be doomed.
And then when we’re old and grown, after we’ve experienced those embedded injustices and understand how to maneuver in a world made for and by the one percent, only then, will we be forced to deal with our juvenile adventures. Not only will we have to reconcile with our adaptation to adulthood but with the trauma of our past deeds of existing in a world not made for queer kids. Our future romantic endeavors will forever be plagued by the ones that hurt so badly because they were formed beyond the realm of a traditional relationship. They were formed and broken beyond just high school drama and immaturity but in bold politics and the declaration of identity that could and would cause violence (big and small). Queer kids will forever be plagued by a childhood that wasn’t set up for their existence. So to the 16-year-old girl who just came out as a lesbian. Who sees a cute girl sitting in the back of her biology class with a flannel and some black nail polish. Just know that your queerness is larger than one step of coming out. Your battle just to crush, just to love, will forever be tainted by our system of global capitalism which will continuously encourage systematic homophobia. But I must admit my biases because of my own failed queer high school relationship, so instead, I’ll say good luck to you. Know that it will be harder than you ever imagined, but to just love is worth it.
I’ve had the privilege of academically diving into the idea of recognizing the violence in so many of our most beloved childhood stories at Bryn Mawr College. In some of my English classes, we’ve analyzed the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lucy Maud Montgomery, all three Brontë sisters. Now outside of my usual academic setting, I’ve stumbled back into the work of Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius. It happened accidentally really, my landlord drove me past a little cottage she stayed at during a difficult time in her life. Up the road diagonal from town, overlooking the vastness of blue water and fields of these grand flowers. What blossoms are these I wonder?
my little old lady friend says. And then it hits me.
I text my mom right away. “I’m living with the lupine lady”
I go to Google right away and pull out words, sentences, phrases, and vivid pictures that feel like my own distant memories- not just words from a book that used to be read to me. I feel like I am looking through an old book of photos from my childhood. I feel like I am listening to recordings of my squeals on my fourth birthday. But this story is not mine and it is not written by my own being. And when I dive deep into the words and pictures, not only am I confronted by this intense feeling of familiarity but by the shocking realization of something much scarier: there is violence in these pages.
What are you supposed to do when you realize the white-colored blankets that hugged you during childhood were created by the forced exploitation of others? What are you supposed to do when you re-read Laura Ingalls Wilder and realize the intense racism of the narrative? What are you supposed to do when you find out Lucy Maud Montgomery was an anti-suffragette? What are you supposed to do when you realize Jane Eyre didn’t just prosper because of her inspiring character but because of the privilege of white inheritance? What are you supposed to do when a little flower brings you back to some of the fondest words and pictures that ever caressed your childhood, only to see words and images you now know have undertones rooted in violent imperialization?
You don’t ignore it. You can’t ignore it. You confront it head-on. Don’t get me wrong, Miss Rumphius is a great work of children’s literature. As are all the other books I mentioned before. But we are not children anymore and we can not choose to also revert back to inherent childlike innocence. We need to talk about the violence in these books. We need to analyze them with the same effort we put into understanding the other themes and symbols. We need to never read these stories to future generations without the disclosure of the full story: one of systemic brutality.
Now you might be asking yourself, what can be so wrong in a book about an old lady and lupines? This book is a perfect example of the whitewashing of the “American Dream”, the legacy of white saviorism in “travel” which most oftentimes masks for pure imperialization, and the mythology of safeness in a land where people of color, specifically indigenous folks, could not have the same outcome as Miss Rumphius. Her grandfather makes money carving “Indians out of wood to put in front of cigar stores” (not only the appropriating of the picture of an indigenous figure but of the capitalist whitewashing of Europeanized consumption and industry of tobacco). He also painted pictures of sailing ships and even though as we know I love boats and sailboats specifically, during this period, we know that they were vehicles to further global imperialization. And one of the three things he tells Alice to do is to travel which as I’ve written about in my past blog posts has deeper routes in how capitalist economies brutalize the global south. In the illustrations which are visually stunning and as I mentioned before, so nostalgic I almost feel like I’m peering into photographs of my own childhood, we can see moments that document the immorality of imperialization under the disguise of “travel.” While I appreciate in one of the pictures it is Bapa Raja giving her the shell instead of the white figure “giving” something to Bapa Raja, the picture is still a classic example of the global divide created by neoliberalism and white supremacy.
And while the ending of this novel is so satisfying I cannot help but know that this resolution would be impossible for anyone else but a white lady whose family benefited off of colonization. Yet it is also wrong to deny the connection I had to this story and still have today. I think that if we recognize these immoral moments and the systems that created them in the past and further them today, our reading of texts like this actually becomes more whole and satisfying. While it might seem sad to reflect on the badness of our favorite childhood tales it shows our maturity through life. It shows that now we can fully understand the true impact of stories.
As I drove past the little cottage with a field of lupines over the sea I was taken aback by the same image we see in the story. As I looked out, a cat crossed the street as we see in the book and I couldn’t help but feel an insanely strong connection. My whole time here in Maine has felt like something out of a story: and for good reason. I’ve buried my head in books by the famous author, Ruth Moore, who writes the actual stories of the people from this island. So much so that I oftentimes get confused when my bosses try to example stories of the real history from this island. I find myself wondering, is that something which happened or something out of a Moore novel instead? So I guess it makes sense that I was also thrown into a book full of the most wonderful pictures like the frames of real-life wonder that surround me daily. Cooney’s story, the story that my mom read to me, the story that I have now analyzed more thoroughly, is a story that I can see right in front of me. I imagine current me telling little me: You’ll never believe it, I found where Miss Rumphius really lives! But as I’m taken back to reality I realize that it is not only little Ella that I wish to tell, but my own current self. In a field of purple lupines, I see my whole life in front of me. I see this small cottage by the blue sea, and I see a sea in front of me because of the life I’ve created. In my journal, I write: “I am so proud of who I am.”
I drive away from the lupine field. Not because I want to do anything but hug those little, frail, colorful flowers- but because I am running late for my next activity. I will be back though, very soon. I will be back to this little cottage on a hill overlooking blue waves and a grand sea, surrounded by lupines I can only imagine were planted by a Miss Rumphius who lived a long time ago and, who’s future was and will be taken care of by those like me, who will never forget her story. Pdf link to text