something from nothing

(cw: mention of sexual trauma)

An [inconclusive] admission, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day:

On Tuesday, I introduced myself as queer for the first time.
In a room full of strangers I may never see again.
Which was easier than claiming that identity around the people who love me.

So, now, people who love me, it’s your turn.

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onwards.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

It’s a common enough question that few of us know how to answer. Is it better to be ambitious or practical? If you aim too high, you risk sounding delusional, but is that worse than aiming low and sounding world-weary beyond your years? Best to aim somewhere in the middle. Throw in a small, achievable milestone–learning pottery, running a half marathon–to show you have a personality and do, in fact, know how to set goals. Play it cool, but not too cool. Smile. Try to ignore the voice in your head screaming that you have no idea what you’re doing.

Easy, right?

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2009

2010

2010

In so many ways, 2020 feels like a deadline. The statute of limitations is up for coming to terms with the past decade, and our final essays are due at midnight. Social media makes it worse. Trending hashtags demand to see your 10-year “glow up” before you’ve even blinked the sleep out of your eyes. A barrage of unsolicited advice on goal-setting and self-care awaits the anxious insomniac. Regardless of time zone, everyone must know immediately how you’re going to make next year The Year. People are getting engaged, planning tattoos, buying flights. But I’m not ready. I’m a million miles away. I need an extension. I’m not ready. I’m reaching for a paper bag. I’m gasping for air.

Help, I cannot stop the moon from rising.

20111

2011

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

When I was in high school, we read a story by Edgar Allan Poe, in which a man, dizzy and drunk, is buried alive in a wine cellar by his friend. It wasn’t an accident. He had been tricked. He thought he was going towards something special. Excitement clouded his senses and blurred his better judgment. He couldn’t see it coming.

(Alas, Fortunato! he would not die of a cough.)

I wasn’t like this eleven years ago.

It’s hard for me to look back on the past decade, because I can see how clearly my life was wrenched off track by a sudden and unmovable depression. I was in a verdant and fruitful place. My world was growing, and I felt the whole universe unfurling at my fingertips. But, if you’ll pardon another literary reference, two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and then a group of mustachioed highwaymen jumped out of a bush, robbed me, took me hostage, and dragged me down some unmarked bootleg path in the wilderness–and that has made all the difference.

Ten years with depression is not a milestone I want to celebrate. I haven’t finished mourning. All that energy I spent existing, when I could have been closer to my friends, engaged more deeply with my studies, nourished my creativity, practiced more activism. Anything I did manage to accomplish will always be drowned out by a cacophonous fugue of IF ONLY. What a shame! What a waste! IF ONLY.

I wasn’t like this eleven years ago. I could not see it coming.

20121

2012

decade5

2013

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have terrible vision. Peering over the rim of my thick glasses, a string of fairy lights eight feet away turns into a shiny blur, and this nearsightedness has sunk deep into my psyche. My projections for the future are myopic at best, but I am an expert in looking back. So, when it came to working on this ten-year assessment, I had a long list of experiences to draw from my personal memory archives. I sat down and wrote a paragraph for each year in my journal, every sentence a living, breathing part of me.

Some were harsh. The year Jenn died, I took long walks alone and ran to fill the time. A body constantly in motion, when I stopped, I cried. I passed Con Law with an A, but let go of my dream of being on the Supreme Court. One year later, a professor told me I was too smart not to contribute in class, and I broke into messy, snotty tears in his office. A 4.0 GPA couldn’t fix my impostor syndrome. Later, I would learn that crossing an ocean won’t solve my problems, either. I didn’t fall in love when I was supposed to, and I fell hard for people I shouldn’t have. I stopped eating and thought that made me stronger. I said no, but he didn’t stop.

decade4

2014

It is true that there is a heavy grief in my past. It is wrapped in trauma, gilded with guilt, and so long assimilated it seems to have reached a cellular level. I can’t KonMari my life. This will always be a part of my story, but what I learned from writing each year of my depression into one long stream of thought was that there is some diamond in the rough.

I got straight-As. I held nine jobs on my career track, and three others that just make good stories now. I found Lucy Stone on a trip to the college archives and caught snakes in Florida. German, Japanese, and English formed a delicious soup in my brain, and I learned the night sky like the freckles on my own skin. I traveled to eight different countries and countless new cities. I stopped waiting for permission to do things and went out on my own. I wrote a thesis and graduated with high honors. I made a few friends that are like family and others that, while less close, still bring me so much joy. I watched some of those friends get married. I learned embroidery. I bought a car. I adopted a cat.

All of these things are good.

All of them could be enough.

2015

2015

2016.jpg

2016

To be honest, I don’t know where I will be in the next ten years, and I don’t even like to guess. Nothing is certain in my world except death, taxes, and depression. However, my hope is that despite not seeing a future, I will be able to find myself in the present. I want to grow roots. I want to wear my story, sadness and all, like a rainbow. I want to feel the difference between existing and living. I want to be strong when it’s needed and gentle when I can.

I cannot stop the moon from rising, but it’s just another day, and more where that came from. 2020 is not a deadline. I’ll breathe in. Life is not an exam. I’ll breathe out. I’ll carry my baggage with me into my thirties, and I will unpack it at my own pace, thank you. I’ll take my breaks where they’re needed. All I can do is move through one day at a time, letting the storms rattle my windows, and trust when the sun is shining. 

So, here’s to tomorrow, diamond or rough, whatever it may bring.

I’m not over it, but I can handle it.

2017

2017

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2018

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2019

hanami 花見

Fragile cherry trees

Social media chaos

Too much lies broken

My nightmare is a sunny day. Identically dressed toddlers stand in a neat row, organized by height, as a stranger circles them from behind a camera. Their parents look over the shoulders of the photographer, voices raising a strained octave each time one of their children refuses to cooperate.

“Look at mommy! Look at — look at mommy!!

They begin to clap their hands, to wave shiny rainbow toys in the air, anything to get their children to look perfect for just one milisecond as the camera shutter clicks up a frenzy. Soon, they’ve even stopped using words.

“Woo woo ayeeeee, look at mommy, boop boop beep!”

Shouted jibberish betrays their desperation. The children splash their new shoes in the mud and laugh.

I am laying on a blanket on the damp grass, looking up into a sakura tree, admiring the meandering branches dotted with delicate blossoms. The clouds have cleared, and the pale pink flowers look even more striking against the blue sky than when I arrived. I’ve picked a tree near the end of the row, a few yards away from everyone else. With my headphones in and my eyes turned skyward, I find I can mostly ignore the dozens of individual photoshoots happening to my left and gently drift towards serenity. A few petals fall on the pages of my book, and I happily consider this blessing.

That is, until the unthinkable happens.

The improved weather increases the number of glamor shot hopefuls, and more families are pushed to the fringes. A group of five–three kids and two adults–enters the grove to my right and sets up camp at the tree directly in front of me. Thus, do I bear witness to the utter carelessness of humanity.

The eldest child is tall enough to reach one of the branches. As she pulls, a shower of tiny petals rains down on her siblings, who giggle and twirl, delighted.

“Do it again!” one of the adults cries, holding her camera at the ready.

The child obeys, shaking the branch vigorously, using all her weight to bend the flowers low enough for the younger children to reach them. They pull off some of the blossoms for their hair.

A few camera clicks later, they begin climbing the tree. Other families see them and join in. Soon, I count 10 children in trees, ranging from toddlers to teenagers. I watch as the same branches are bent again and again, as needed until the perfect shot is achieved. Petals fill the air as though the trees were weeping.

This particular grove of cherry trees was gifted to Cleveland by the Japanese Association of Northern Ohio in the 1990s so that folks in the city could enjoy a particularly beautiful aspect of their culture: hanami (花見).

Hanami (花 “flower” & 見 “to see”) is an annual pilgrimage to sit beneath the sakura and contemplate their beauty. Sakura represent the overwhelming splendor of life and its tragic fragility. The trees are a symbol of Japan, appearing in literature, poetry, and art for thousands of years.

Because sakura are delicate and prone to disease, it is proper etiquette to keep your hands away from the trees. Any pulling or shaking could crack the branches and harm the tree. Shaking all the petals away, means they’re gone for good, and ruins the experience for other people who may arrive later. It is disrespectful, and, in some cases, illegal.

It was only after I saw these families yanking and tugging that I noticed the full extent of damage done to the grove, which had only just bloomed. Bare sticks and discarded, wilted clumps of flowers littered the ground. In some instances, branches that had been broken still hung from the tree by a few fibers, swaying sadly in the breeze. All of this for a picture!

Hot tears stung my eyes. My heart was pounding in my chest as I osscilated between anger and melancholy. I wanted to scream! Never before had I felt more like the unheeded Lorax.

These are the moments that push me towards misanthropy. Willful ignorance and a quest for the perfect social media aesthetic has rendered us as destructive as King Midas. Our priorities are broken. We examine beauty filtered through a screen. We stress over our image, comparing ourselves to countless imagined others, pushing further, further to be the best. We want, want, want, so we grab, grab, grab, and nothing but broken sticks and crushed flowers lies in our wake. We leave as unfulfilled as we arrived.

The the tiny, miraculous gifts of spring are fantastic healers. They lift the spirit and teach us lessons about life, but they are fleeting and fragile, and we are selfishly of balance. We constantly force the tyranny of our desires on a world that is already mined to capacity. The flowers give us hope. They look for reciprocity, and we deal them death instead.

I honestly don’t know how to change this story for the better. I didn’t confront the families. In the end, I just packed up my blanket and left. All I can wish is that this post reaches someone, and that someday we remember how to engage with our planet in a way that enriches our spirits and does no harm. A healthy, thriving tree is worth a missed photo op. I can only keep saying it: put down your phone, look around, breathe, live.

c’mon, shift back to good again

I took a sip of beer and gazed up into the rainbow lights behind the band. In a sea of jumping, gyrating exhilaration, I alone stood still.

The bubbles tickled my tongue and grew flat in my mouth as I struggled to swallow against the tightening of my throat. My lips trembled even as I clapped my hands. I blinked back tears. Although the strangers surrounding me were so close that our soft upper arms touched, I felt miles away, lost in the black hole gravity of my panicking consciousness.

A light flashed across my face, and I made eye contact with the bassist. Did he see me there, naked and vulnerable, suddenly exposed, the lonely girl with the purple lipstick, crying through their opening set? I blinked, and the moment ended. The band played on.

When the text message came through from the landlord that my rent application had been denied, all the anxious waiting and positive intentions I had built up over the weekend collapsed inwards. Amidst the palpable excitement in the room, I was laughably maudlin, mourning an apartment and a new lifestyle I had already begun to live in my head. The couple next to me kissed and danced; I contemplated homelessness.* Hands raised high and cheers rang out; I wept quietly for all my crushed dreams, which in that moment, joined together in a cruel almalgamation of hopelessness. What a painful, ridiculous dissonance!

(*This is not realistic, but my brain often jumps to extremes.)

I can honestly say, receiving bad news during a concert is an isolating experience. Although my evening started nightmarishly, my mood did lighten as the main act, Of Montreal, took the stage an hour later.

A masked man in skeleton suit introduced the band with a dark, irreverent monologue that was, incidentally, exactly what I needed to hear. A woman going on a date narrowly misses being pooed on by a bird, but instead steps in dog poo and so is annoyed on the date. They don’t fall in love, so they don’t have a child who chases a ball into the path of a car driven by a woman researching cures for cancer, who then doesn’t crash into a pole…and so on. Something happens, something follows. Or not. The universe moves on.

The universe moves on, and so did my brain, to a different, less doomed thought cycle. Is it possible, I wondered as a glowing skeleton puppet entered stage right, to separate the things we like from the painful, or even toxic, relationships that introduced us to them?

To provide some context, I am not an Of Montreal superfan. I was introduced to their music sometime in 2012 after I had moved back to Oberlin. A person I adored with all my heart came over, as he often did, just to hang out. I let him choose the music, and we sat on the floor, talking, laughing, sometimes touching. It was a supremely happy moment in a slightly-more-than friendship that later turned very sour. Still, I liked the songs. I played Of Montreal at the burrito restaurant when he stopped by and when he’d come over to make pancakes. I even drove to Cleveland to see them live. When we were on better footing, before he graduated, I asked him to burn me a CD with some Of Montreal tracks on it. He obliged, taking the time to scrawl the titles on the front so I’d know what I was listening to. Long after he moved away, I would look at his handwriting and wish it had turned out differently between us.

The feelings of betrayal and shattered trust that poisoned our relationship were very real and, in some regards, persist into my present relationships. But I still love Of Montreal…which begs the question: is it possible to reconcile this joy with the utter wreckage of my mental health during that time of my life? When does it become a band I like and not a band he showed me? Can I excise the malignant memories without somehow neutering the overall experience?

Having no answer, I followed the bittersweet Tour de Nostalgie where it led, and where it led is someplace sweeter, if no less painful.

I first came to the venue, Beachland Ballroom, in the summer of 2013, with a man I will call Dan. Dan was mature, kind, respectful, and gentle in a way I’d never experienced before. He made me feel smart, vivacious, even desirable.

On this particular outing, we ordered drinks and sat in the tavern, listening to a band neither of us had heard of until we both got tired. We walked to the gravel parking lot a few blocks away holding hands. The sun was setting, and we hugged before both getting into our respective cars and driving to our respective homes on opposite sides of the city. I lived in Oberlin at the time. He lived in Brecksville. The moment was tender and drenched in warmth.

Dan and I ended abruptly, almost without warning. He got a job in a foreign country, and this time I was the bad actor, betraying his trust by kissing another person without first checking on our yet-to-be-disclosed status. There was no coming back. Dan quietly unfriended me on social media and we haven’t communicated since. I think he’s back in the United States now, going to grad school. Who knows.

It’s a mental scab I pick at only gingerly, with the understanding that our very normal, undramatic separation is tied up in knots with a trauma that I have yet to heal. But, if I tread carefully, I can wonder, for example, how spaces like Beachland Ballroom (or Brecksville Reservation, or Playhouse Square) become so haunted by ghosts of memories long past, even after new ones are made. Can holding space for a complicated memory ever be considered healthy? Where is the line drawn between ritual remembering and torture?

I stop myself when I begin to wonder if Dan ever thinks of me. That, I know, is not healthy. But I can’t help it. Places like Beachland are conductors to my electric introspection. The thoughts just flow.

Luckily, the pauses between songs were few and far between, and there were plenty of other things to distract my errant brain. I considered the fact that this is the most I have seen Kevin Barnes directly relate to an audience. He talked about being from Cleveland, joked about the Browns, and seemed genuinely happy. He was goofy and silly, beyond the more performative aspects of the show. It was infectious. It made me happy, too.

Eventually, I was just like everyone else, having fun, pure and simple. I was dancing. I raised my hands and screamed out what lyrics I knew by heart. I got confetti in my bra and helped a costumed dancer surf the crowd. The night ended on a high.

I left the venue with my ears ringing and a head full of unanswered, but now less urgent, questions. I still don’t have all the answers. I still don’t know where I’ll live next. I still don’t know how to hang on to the good and let go of the bad without hanging on to or letting go of everything all at once. All I know is that it’s complicated. And that’s okay.

Something happens, something follows. Or not. The universe moves on.

alma mater

Exactly one year ago, I finished my first creative essay in over a decade. I couldn’t post it right away, because I was waiting for it to be reviewed by a local literary magazine. Needless to say, it was not accepted for publication. So, because I am impatient, and sitting on things does me no good at all, I present to you: my piece. Enjoy.

***

ALMA MATER

On the far side of the town of Oberlin, just before the sidewalk ends, there is a modest gravel driveway, sandwiched between a private residence and a private golf course. I could not say for certain who owns the driveway. It leads to both a maintenance shed and a two-car family garage. My feet belong to neither, but they have shuffled up this path, kicking loose stones, on more occasions than I can count.

What lies at the end of the drive is something of a secret. Two sandstone pillars, barely higher than my head, mark the entrance to a quiet, clandestine copse of trees called the Ladies’ Grove. But for its curious gateway, this place would seem indistinguishable from the adjacent woods, where there is a pond and a meadow and a forbidden fire pit for college students to congregate around after skinny-dipping in the summer. The neighboring forest is larger, with a more convenient entrance, parking for cars, and a rack for bikes. It is where the people go. There are few who would venture this far for an ostensibly unremarkable stand of scraggly trees.

In my soft, leather boots, with the top button of my wool coat fastened against the biting chill, I approach the stone gateway with all the solemnity of a pilgrim. Each square pillar is emblazoned with a word in all caps—LADIES on the left, GROVE on the right. I like to think of this place as forgotten and untouched by time, but the letters and their serifs are grooved too deeply to have withstood centuries of weathering. I consider the thought that someone, at some time, loved this place as I do, enough to preserve it from the slow-rising tide of our modern empire. Whizzing electric golf carts and rainbow plastic playsets mark its boundaries, but their bustle and noise do not penetrate the grove. I am grateful for this gift as I cross the threshold and breathe deep.

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The air smells like brown leaves and mud, which makes sense, because it is March, and the ground is beginning to thaw. Instantly, I regret my choice of footwear, as my feet sink into the rich humus, and the cold damp penetrates even the tiniest holes in my well-worn boots. Apart from its clearly-marked entrance, the Ladies’ Grove seems to have no designated trails. Thin, young trees cast dark shadows in my direction, and fallen leaves blanket the ground as far as the eye can see, giving this place the illusion of infinity. Undaunted, I am guided by experience. I have walked these woods long enough to know the way.

It is not a great distance from the gateway to the muddy, sloping banks of Plum Creek. As I traipse through the quagmire, a gentle breeze coaxes a strand of hair from my long braid. I tuck it behind my ear. The marcescent leaves of a young beech tree spring into action, rubbing their dried, pale bodies together to produce a whisper like the quiet rustle of fabric. The sound follows the breeze throughout the woods, a long and haunting sigh. The return of the sun has not yet broken the frigid grasp of winter, and I am struck by the liminality of this moment, where seasons mingle and past and present converge.

Like a naturalist in search of migratory birds, I come to this place in search of memory. The Ladies’ Grove was established in the early days of Oberlin, a sheltered zone where young ladies could wander unchaperoned. Centuries ago, when dense woods still marked the boundaries of settlement, Oberlin’s college was the first in the United States to commit to co-education. Dozens of female students flocked to this isolated swamp town for the chance to prove their intellect, but that promise was only partially realized. Propriety demanded strict scrutiny of the fairer sex. There would be no public speaking, no ancient languages, no stepping out after dark, and absolutely no unsupervised roving in fields and forests. In the 21st century, I can wander wherever I choose, but I return to the Ladies’ Grove as surely as a spotted salamander returns to the vernal pool of its birth.

When I pass through the pillars and into the trees, the memories of the earth beneath my feet entwine with my own. I walk in tandem with my fore-sisters. Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown, before they spoke fearlessly for abolition and women’s rights, led their female peers into the trees to practice the forbidden art of debate and hone their oratory skills. Harriet Keeler, a firebrand suffragette who would go on to publish several botanical field guides, likely had her first introduction to the beauty of the natural world in these woods. Adelia Johnston, who refused to lead the Ladies’ Department if she would not be allowed to teach, was first accepted as a professor of Botany. Did she bring her classes here, a place where young women could grow as wild and beautiful as bergamot? What countless others passed through this forest enroute to fulfilling their dreams?

I imagine these women as I walk, and the long centuries collapse. They stepped over layers of decomposing leaves, same as me. The whisper of their heavy skirts swished through the trees. Their laced leather boots slipped over mossy rocks and into the dark mud. The ringing sound of their eager voices, yet untested, echoed the sweet songs of birds. The scent of rosewater, citrus, and sage mingled with our native wildflowers to create a perfume unique to this place and that time. If I close my eyes, I can smell it. We could not be closer if we walked arm in arm. This is the magic of the Ladies’ Grove.

When I felt alone or defeated in college, as I often did, I came to sit in the woods. On my first visit, I walked a wild, meandering route before I found a place to drop my cardboard cushion in the mud. The spot had called to me with its silence, far removed from the open reservoirs with their jolly student revelers. I could hear Plum Creek washing over pebbles in the distance. Little pools of water collected in the motley carpet of leaves and reflected patches of sunlight onto the backs of my crossed legs. I closed my eyes and sighed.

In the beginning, I believed it was the solitude of the space that made it sacred. The trees were stately pillars, the sun-lit canopy a stained glass masterpiece, the animal cries a chorus. I would return when icy drops of water coated pine needles like syrup, and again when the toads began to whir in harmony. I began to know the charm of all the seasons, and I rarely saw a soul. It was another year before I would discover the origin of my wooded temple and learn to call it by its name. That was when time began to unfold beneath my feet, a layered tapestry of stories bound together by the kinetic thread of memory. Then I knew I was never truly alone.

When we think of repositories of memory, our minds often wander to dusty archives, crowded library stacks, and interactive museum exhibits. I think of these trees: beech, maple, and oak. These botanical sentinels of time lead long lives. From their first roots plunging deep into the soil, until their decaying logs become a feast for fungus, trees may witness the birth of villages, the waging of war, and the growth of our children. Layers of time, like layers of earth, are bound up in these roots. After great trees are felled, I often see cross-sections of their large trunks hanging in buildings, little pins stuck into the wood to mark occasions like George Washington’s birthday or the 1969 lunar landing. We frame them in the context of human events and marvel at their longevity, but there is a way to tell the age of a tree that requires no violence towards its existence. You need only measure its girth.

In a healthy forest, each species of tree has a unique growth factor, a number assigned to them by forestry experts. Multiplied by a tree’s diameter at breast height, this species growth factor is the key to unlocking an individual’s age. For my excursion today, I have engaged the dusty and derelict portion of my brain dedicated to storing mathematical equations. Circumference divided by pi equals diameter. Diameter times species growth factor equals age. I mutter these formulas under my breath like a prayer as my eyes scan the woods around me. It registers, briefly, that I may never have been more focused on a visit to the Ladies’ Grove. I am on a mission.

In my pocket rests a long coil of yarn, which I will use to measure the memories of these trees. Not one to cut corners, I used a ruler to cut the string. With the help of a calculator, I painstakingly determined the approximate diameter of a tree that could have lived alongside Lucy Stone. I run my fingers anxiously over the fibers of the yarn as I walk the length of the creek. My eyes dart left and right. Many of the trunks here seem wide enough to predate the retired golfers making their way across the neighboring green, but none strike me as the great elders I seek.

Heaviness grips my heart and defeat twists knots in my gut. There are only so many trees, and so I turn to leave, unfulfilled. Without a purpose to guide them, the energy has drained from my footsteps. I plod back to reality. My eyes are fixed on the ground, and I move past small, spectacular signs of spring with hardly any interest. A mourning cloak butterfly, its dusky, pristine wings fringed with pale yellow, rises out of the leaf litter. Its flight carries it over a patch of delicate snowdrop blossoms before it disappears back into the infinite brown. A robin sings, long and flute-like, from somewhere overhead. This brightness cannot penetrate the cloud of my disappointment. I feel as gray and mildewed as the rotting leaves crushed under my muddy boots.

The same stone pillars that greeted me earlier once more come into view. I have nearly left this place behind, perhaps discarded it forever as a childish fascination, borne of a post-adolescent depression and nothing more. But something deep in my nature halts my feet and urges me to turn around. The loose strand of hair I had tucked behind my ear is once again plucked free by the wind. The woods at my back come alive with sound. My heart begins to race, and I am overcome. Despite my newfound cynicism, I cannot help but look back.

There she stands, as plain as day. The trees cease their whispering as the breeze fades, and I take in the wide, dark expanse of her trunk. My eyes follow the deep furrows in her bark all the way up to her tangled canopy, which towers above the rest. Trees are not as ephemeral as butterflies or birdsong, but this aged white oak has come to my attention just as suddenly.

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I am a poor mathematician, yet I do not need the string in my pocket to know this tree is older than the rest and far beyond my expectations. White oaks grow strong and tall, and this tree is easily a double centenarian. As I approach, I notice a basal scar—a smooth, white patch in a field of scaly, gray bark about five feet from the ground. It is shaped like a heart, and something curious about this shape compels me forward. I tip-toe on her thick, mossy roots until I am close enough to touch the exposed wood. I raise my hand, close my eyes, and press my palm onto the smooth surface. Instantly, I feel her presence. The energy that passes into my body is too vague to be electric, and I am too much of a realist to suspect it is spiritual. Yet something stirs within me.

In older forests, there is something biologists call a mother tree, connected to all the others by an acres-wide, underground system of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. The mothers are the giants of the network, sending nutrients through the web to their progeny and their neighbors. When the time comes for a mother to die, the centuries of energy stored in her body will decompose slowly into nutrient-rich soil, a ready-made cradle for the next generation. She is a perpetual caretaker of the community, the method of its endless rebirth.

The woods of the Ladies’ Grove are not as old as they once were, but this white oak mother continues to nurture her kin. Over a century ago, when the first Oberlin women walked these grounds, she might have been a spry teenager, feeding off another mother’s roots. Now she shares this life-force with a new crop of youngsters. Gazing at the current expanse of thin trunks, which had so recently been the cause of my frustration, I am filled with an indescribable sense of warmth, of belonging. I think of the words alma mater, which, when directly translated, describe a mother who nourishes. Like these young trees, I am the descendant of giant mothers—the almae matres of my alma mater—whose decades of work made a fertile bed for my own growth. With each generation of independent, outspoken women, the soil grew richer.

I came to the Ladies’ Grove in search of memory. I wanted to feel the presence of the pioneering women who strolled under these trees before taking on the world. I thought their spirit could only manifest in the heartwood of an aged giant, but memory is not static. It flows. Whether through human history or a vast, symbiotic network of roots and fungus, that memory feeds its descendants, ensuring their survival in a world that is not always open to them. The virgin forest that once surrounded this white oak mother long ago fell victim to the axe; many strong women passed on before their goals were realized; but the young trees of the Ladies’ Grove and I have grown up with the energy of those that came before. In the constant generation of this little grove of trees, as in the continued beating of my heart, their legacy lives on.

As I finally pass through the twin pillars, the ground beneath my feet changes slowly, from soft earth to crushed gravel. I follow the curious driveway, past the garage, past the maintenance shed, until I reach the sidewalk. My legs carry my body back towards town, but I have left a piece of me behind. When I laid my hand on the great white oak, I felt its fragility. Someday it will collapse under the weight of its spring leaves and seed its memories back into the earth—centuries of sunshine and rainfall, of birds’ nests and squirrel quarrels, the sound of rustling leaves, the ringing of passionate voices, and, perhaps, even the light brush of my fingertips.

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be my 19th-century galentine

“…my heart has just been called back to the time when we used to sit with our arms around each other at the sunset hour & talk & talk of our friends & our homes & of ten thousand subjects of mutual interest till both our hearts felt warmer & lighter for the pure communication of spirit.”

(ABB to LS, 1848)

Anne Shirley longed for a kindred spirit. Leslie Knope inaugurated Galentine’s Day. Loving female friendships have been a defining part of womanhood for centuries, opening space for strangers to become sisters. This was especially true during the 1800s, which set the doctrine of “separate spheres” on a collision course with women’s education.

Often, ambitious female students were sent to female-only colleges and seminary schools, where there could be no risk of any indiscreet behavior. Even at Oberlin College, my alma-mater and a leader in co-education, social interactions between men and women were met with trepidation. For fear of being labelled a den of debauchery, Oberlin made very sure to keep its female students under a strict behavioral regimen. No matter where you went to school, this was the rule: no boys allowed (until marriage).

While most heterosocial interactions were discouraged, there was no limit, no curfew, on sharing time with other women. In this environment, female friendships flourished. Although homosexual acts were illegal, our modern fear-mongering over same-sex relationships wouldn’t reach a fevered pitch until decades later. Women’s sexuality, especially, was so poorly understood as to be thought nonexistent. So there was no harm in walking together…dancing together… sleeping together…

It is in this era that Antoinette Brown met Lucy Stone in Oberlin, and where Lucy discovered, as “dear Nette” would later write, “the key to my soul.”

Both women were ambitious, dreaming of a potential beyond their assigned gender roles. Lucy had plans to speak publicly for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women, and Antoinette wanted to become a minister. At a time when women were not permitted to speak in churches and the few who found an open podium were pelted with stones and insults, they imagined (and achieved) the impossible.

From their hometowns in Massachusetts and New York, Oberlin must have seemed a shining oasis of unrestricted knowledge, having conferred the first official bachelor’s degrees to women in the United States in 1841. What they would find upon their arrival, however, was not quite all they had hoped.

Lucy Stone arrived first, a brash, stubborn Garrisonian, who (at best) could be described as conflicted about religion. She was short on funds, stretched thin, and resented being policed by the ostensibly omniscient Ladies’ Board. There would be no speaking in public for her, no debating the young men in her classes. Although Oberlin was against slavery, Lucy was chastised and patronized for her more radical beliefs. These were not the happiest of days.

Meanwhile, en route to Oberlin, Antoinette Brown took a stage coach from Elyria. During the journey, a man, who also happened to be a trustee of the College, bestowed some advice upon the young lady: stay away from Lucy Stone. She was bright, he allowed, but “eccentric…and far too talkative on the subject of woman’s rights.” As Antoinette would later remember it, “I resolved then and there to know more of Lucy Stone.”

The close, intimate relationship that blossomed offered the two women the necessary security to explore their sense of self, validate their ambitions, and push through hardship. Together, they convinced a professor to let them debate each other in class. When that experiment ended with the Ladies’ Board’s extreme disapproval, they founded a women’s debate club in secret, in the woods. When Lucy graduated and began her oratory career, Antoinette urged her to “speak as though you had a right to.” And, although Lucy felt very strongly that Oberlin and religion would crush Antoinette’s spirit, she knew her dear friend would succeed, despite being willfully overlooked and discouraged by many male theology professors.

Their relationship continued and evolved for decades. First, as sworn spinsters. Later, as sisters-in-law and mothers. As their writing styles matured, they continued to reminisce happily of the times when “you waded through mud and rain, after 9 o’clock P.M. for the sake of sleeping with me.”

Although they were never lovers in a sexual sense, their letters are rich with passion. In an era of dating apps and hook-ups, I think it’s easy to discount the importance of our friendships. Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown sure loved each other – and they weren’t shy about saying it! So, in the spirit of Galentines Day and in honor of this beautiful homosocial relationship, I present some examples of true sisterly love:

“Dearest Lucy, It is a beautiful morning warm & pleasant as Spring & about as muddy in the roads…When I was passing along the board walk on Pleasant street, I thought of our evening strolls together & your favorite quotation ‘how shall two walk together except they be agreed’ sounds so naturally in my heart that I half looked around expecting you were beside me. Thoughts of you steal over me every time I walk that way particularly if it is evening & at no time is your memory brighter sweeter & dearer to me than then. O how glad I should be to have your arm around me & my arm around you & to walk with you again on that narrow plank even at the risk of slipping off into the mud.”

(ABB to LS, 1849)

“There is not room to write how much I love you but it is a great deal. Write Lucy very soon–a long long long letter–tell me everything and let us be sisters forever wont we. How I do wish I could hear from you to night.”

(ABB to LS, 1850)

“Dearest Lucy, it is a fine pleasant afternoon just such as one as makes me think of you. Dear Lucy if you were here now in this pleasant little room in the old boarding hall why then–I dont know what would happen; but I believe I should sit down and cry for joy. Yes here we are in the same room that I occupied at the time I came from home with the artificials in my bonnet, and you came in and cried over me for sorrow. Dear dear L. I love you better for those tears than I should have done without them, and I have no artificials in my bonnet now; but am just as much determined as ever to think them pretty… I said ‘we are in the same room,’ but poor room! It has almost lost its identity, through the abundance of paint, white wash, and paper till not a particle of its former brown countenance can be discovered.”

(ABB to LS, 1850)

Here’s to female friendships!

*Selected correspondence from Friends and Sisters: Letters between Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell, 1846-93 by Carol Lasser and Marlene Merrill (University of Illinois Press, 1987)

**LS was not known as a prolific penpal, and on at least one occasion requested her letters be destroyed, then later many of those she did keep burned in a fire… hence, the major quotations from ABB only

ode to a joyful place (now gone)

“You don’t know anything about bowling.”

He said this, not to be mean, but to state a fact. I knew nothing about bowling. Still, with the confidence of an eighteen-year-old who had been denied very little in life, I entered the interview wearing mom jeans and an old, ratty sweater, sure that he would hire me.

My gut feeling wasn’t wrong. He didn’t hire me to work at the bowling lanes. That would have been a disaster. But he saw something in me–maybe it was hidden potential, maybe it was a sad and desperate search for someplace to belong–and he called me with a job offer later that afternoon.

Wilder Desk Attendant.

I left Oberlin with a glimmer of optimism. Next year would be better.

“Meet at 9 a.m. Wear comfy pants.”

The e-mail that went out to all new and returning Wilder employees was vague and cryptic, perhaps on purpose. We all crowded onto a rumbling yellow school bus, delayed because some students were held up buying drinks and peaches. I remember the smell of the brown plastic seats. I was still young enough to be nostalgic for the clear boundaries and expectations of public high school. Old worries crept in to ruin the excitement of this new beginning. What if I still didn’t fit in?

There was a boy, tall and skinny with a shock of hair that seemed to defy gravity. I remember going to sit near him, because I felt like he was worried, too. When the upperclassmen appeared with bushels of fruit and glass bottles clanging in green plastic bags, he didn’t step up to greet them or admonish them jokingly like the others. I can’t remember the exact moment when we first spoke, or the exact words we said. They were likely uttered in that awkward, halting way when your voice is somehow caught off guard, the connections between your brain and mouth severed by racing, anxious thoughts. Still, we became friends. Not just for that weekend. Not even just as co-workers. Real friends who went jogging together, cooked meals and watched Twin Peaks together, played board games, sent letters, went bowling together.

He wasn’t my first college friend, but he might have been the best.

The Wilder Orientation Lakeside Retreat weekends have passed into legend over the years, a relic of a more open budget, but they were the key to my happiness in college. Wo-Ho-Mis lodge was our headquarters for all the standard ice breakers and training activities you would expect on a work retreat. It was also the headquarters for late night games of The Floor is Lava and dramatic readings of hyper-religious teen self-help volumes that warned of Flirt State University, followed by early morning yoga and meditation with our boss. From there we were given free reign to explore the town–unlimited shuffleboard, mini golf, ice cream, movies, and lake swimming.

You may be thinking “wait a second–this was for work?” Well, you’re right. Without meaning to, I had fallen into one of the best jobs on campus, working for and with some of the best people in Oberlin. These retreats weren’t just meant to spoil us and show us a good time. They were meant to help us bond in meaningful ways–to teach us the basic expectations of our jobs, but also to nourish our whole selves in a way that recognized our humanity. We weren’t just employees. These trips emphasized that we were a family. We arrived back on campus ready to share the love.

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For those unfamiliar with Oberlin, Wilder Desk was located immediately to your right as you entered though the Student Union building’s main doors. One side of its green counter was always full of student handouts or free food leftover from meetings. There were usually a few people gathered around that area, backpacks slung over one shoulder, casually discussing class assignments or study abroad plans. From a computer behind the desk, quiet strains of music (any genre–pick your favorite) drifted out into the common space, barely heard over laughter echoing in the halls or the stampede of mandatory discussion groups tromping up and down the stairs every hour. When you stepped into the building, someone at the desk would greet you with a quiet smile (or a boisterous “hullo” if you were familiar). It was a simple, but powerful, acknowledgement of everyone’s shared existence. Our boss called it “stellar customer service.”

He believed that goodness was contagious–that, from the Desk, we could radiate a spirit that touched everyone who walked through the doors, who would then take that goodness out to the world, and the world would reciprocate. That doesn’t mean we never cried at the desk. I was perpetually tearing up over assignments or loneliness, embarrassing as it was. But he intentionally hired people to create a community of caring. We lifted each other up no matter what. It wasn’t “the customer is always right.” It was “the customer is a human, and so are you, so let’s work together.”

As a Desk Attendant, you had to keep track of everything. My boss called it “driving the bus of Oberlin.” We were the starting point of every question about department office hours, mail room hours, directions, local landmarks, lost IDs, college radio shows, club membership, ticket sales, event schedules, and more. I once took a phone call about a chicken crossing the road (literally). We had an answer for everything, and, if we didn’t, we knew where to look. We rented out frisbees and board games, and sold banner paper, stamps and envelopes. We were a hub for friendly activity, chugging along to the tune of a noisy cash register with chunky buttons and a proclivity for beeping when poked the wrong way.

Wilder Desk was the literal keeper of the keys. Any room you scheduled in the building, whether it was for a dance rehearsal or knitting club, you had to stop by the desk. The keys hung from little golden hooks on a wooden stand that made a metallic rolling sound when it turned. We exchanged IDs for keys and keys for IDs. I learned a lot of names that way, made a lot of pleasant small talk with all sorts of people. Slowly I began to feel connected to the Oberlin College community. I was no longer an island in a sea of inexplicable adolescent sadness. I had found a place to belong.

Over the course of my three years at Wilder Desk, I grew to feel loved and cared for in a way I never would have expected after the disaster of my first year at college. I made friends that were like family. We visited each other during our respective shifts, gorging on free leftover pizza, playing contentious games of Connect 4, once even hosting a mini tea party with finger sandwiches and piping hot mugs of tea. We had holiday gift exchanges and ridiculous dance-offs. No matter what happened, there was always someone there at the Desk. Goodness bred goodness. We were all different, but we all got along.

Even after we graduated, that community of caring persisted. I remember visiting the Desk during my five year reunion. The faces were different, but the same spirit and camaraderie were there. They drank in our stories of former desk attendant glories and shared some of their own. Our photos were still on the computer, joined with hundreds of other photos of later generations of students, all of us one community. I posted an update for my former co-workers who were unable to attend, and we were all reunited virtually in our love for Wilder and sweet memories of the Desk. Again, I felt connected. Again, I felt rooted.

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For better or for worse, Oberlin College decided to demolish Wilder Desk over the past summer. Student workers were advised to find other employment and a longtime college staff member was laid off. The decision came amidst a lot of other routine decisions–the closing of a dining hall, the retirement of outdated college rental apartments–but, despite the apparent normalcy of the act, it still felt like a betrayal. Frustration burned hot in my belly as I watched a video of the Desk’s deconstruction online. Bigger and better things to come…but what could be better than Wilder Desk?

I recently visited Oberlin for an unrelated committee meeting. I got a coffee and a bagel from The Local and sat out on Tappan Square, soaking in the memories. It was 9:15 am, in the middle of class for a Wednesday morning, so the square was deserted. An older man on a bicycle clattered past on the brick walkway, but that was it. I finished my bagel and crumpled the foil in my hand. With time to spare before the meeting, I stood up and walked to Wilder Student Union.

The Desk is gone. Replaced by empty chairs and a newly-painted orange wall, the life and vibrancy–the camaraderie and community–that were the heart and soul of my Oberlin experience have vanished without a trace, wheeled out with the last speck of evidence that anything but a clinical coldness had ever existed in that space. No one gathered around the counter. The counter wasn’t there. No one smiled at me when I came in. There was no one to smile. There was no one to drive the bus.

Wilder felt dead.

RIP Wilder.

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“You don’t know anything about bowling.”

Sometimes I think back to that first interview, and I realize how lucky I am that he hired me–that my first job was at the Student Union, my first boss a man who believed in validating and supporting his employees as people. Oberlin College taught me a lot of things, but maybe the most important was the philosophy of stellar customer service. (Or maybe it was open-handed gestures–my Wilder folks know what’s up!)

The Desk may be gone, but it will remain the epicenter of a giant ripple of goodness in my life’s story. It was the end of my isolation in college and the beginning of my blossoming. Without the family I found there, I would have likely thrown in the towel. I am strong because of the three years I spent being supported by wonderful people. I am competent at my current job because of the three years I spent learning from good supervisors how to serve an entire community. The skills and self-confidence I learned at Wilder are equal to (if not more than) any I learned in an academic course. As my alma mater seems more and more intent on chipping away at the heart of its community, all I can do is take that spirit and continue to spread it. That will be my act of resistance.

The Desk is gone; long live its joy.