a word of recommendation: cringy old tunes

Every now and then, when I’m cruising through Spotify, I spot a song that takes me back. It’ll be totally unexpected; I may not have ever remembered liking this or that song independent of Spotify’s prompting. It will likely make me cringe, especially because throughout my life I have been convinced of the superiority of my own music taste. Yet the impetus to make a childhood music playlist grew with each nostalgic encounter. Finally, the urge proved too much to sit with. So, this month, I made it.

It is by no means a complete (play)list. In fact, the more music I’ve added, the more the inevitably-missing songs frustrate me. Nonetheless, I currently have 503 songs saved on a playlist named “sarah cavar childhood hits” (no caps, we’re keeping it casual). The rules regarding which songs I could add to this list are relatively simple. One, the songs in question had to have been listened to at or before age thirteen. I designate my graduation from eighth grade and beginning of high school as the arbitrary upper limit of my childhood for these purposes. Two, the songs could not simply be from a childhood artist that I liked, but rather, they must be individual songs I can remember listening to.

I have this playlist on shuffle right now and I’m going to write about whichever five songs that pop up as I’m writing this post. I leave behind “Layers” by Asobi Seksu, which provided background to my introduction. Incidentally, this group was the one that introduced me to “shoegaze” as a genre. It is also a group that scandalized my young ears when I learned its name meant “play sex” in Japanese.  Their music is as dreamy as one might hope play sex to be.

1. Onto the childhood song-shuffle. I’m now listening now to “Hero / Heroine” by Boys Like Girls. This is one of those whiny sad boy songs I rarely let myself listen to both back then and today. I didn’t yet understand the mass appeal of whiny sad boy songs, all I knew was that the particular tone of this song made me unbearably melancholic. I listened to this song on the way to my grandmother’s house lived. I stared out the window sadly, as one does in these situations. I finished the song as I am currently doing. I found myself caught up in whatever deeply emotional memories, even nostalgia, I may have had a decade ago. My stomach had dropped into sadness and wouldn’t rise. Sad boy songs suck. It should be noted that, as I finish working on this blog post almost twelve hours after beginning it, this song is still stuck in my head and continues to make the backs of my eyes feel like I’m about to cry. Well done, Boys Like Girls!

2. The song ended and “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel began. I still remember most of the lyrics/historical events from this song –– I had them all memorized years ago, back before I knew what half of them meant. When Joel sings about “children of thalidomide,” I’m reminded of a particular event in fourth grade I’m still unsure of how to look at from a disability studies perspective. Ah yes, “children of thalidomide.” He just sang that as I wrote the other sentence. Anyway, I was in art class in fourth grade and (as was popular in 2009?) watching several boys in the class tuck most of their arms into their short-sleeved shirts and wave their hands around, pretending as though their arms didn’t exist. Our then-teacher scolded them harshly for making fun of children of thalidomide by stuffing their arms into their shirtsleeves. I was proud to have context for what she said. Most of my peers were confused. Had I known the infamous term “special snowflake” back then, I surely would have called her one. Present me cringes at the memory. My problematic self took home a set of her scented markers that year.

3. A middle school song is on now. “Everest” by Ra Ra Riot. I discovered Ra Ra Riot while sitting on a pink beanbag with my iPod touch, hungrily scouring iTunes for good music on which I could spend a new gift card. I was smugly satisfied that I had discovered such indie bands such as Arcade Fire, of whom I was convinced no one else had ever heard. I was devastated when “The Suburbs” received critical acclaim, convinced that my beloved “indie band” had lost all its rarity and thus all its value. Ra Ra Riot was a recommended band beneath the option to purchase an Arcade Fire album on iTunes. It had received significantly less notice; fewer reviews. Well done, Sarah! I thought to myself. One of your indie bands may have been discovered, but there will always be another for you to dig up and hoard for yourself!

4. I’m listening to “Chocolate Chips” by Zoe Boekbinder now. I discovered the Boekbinder sisters via their act Vermillion Lies. I downloaded several of their albums from Bandcamp. I was very confused as to why people liked these quirky woman singer-songwriters who half sang/half spoke along with some strange instruments which likely weren’t instruments at all. This confusion grew as I discovered both CocoRosie and Regina Spektor, both of whom I shunted into this (admittedly too-broad) category. When I was trying to add music by the Boekbinder sisters to this playlist, I was struck by 1) how little of their work had made its way from Bandcamp to Spotify and 2) how deeply I now adored their music. I’ve been listening to the Boekbinders as often, now, as I listen to their half-siblings: Tune-Yards, Superorganism, etc. If anything, to me, this quirky girl music is antithetical to the sad boy music I bemoaned in item (1). It constantly makes you wonder, “Is this music? Is she just banging pots and pans together and speak-singing along with the sound? Either way, why do I like it so much?” I just do.

5. Lastly, the song “Noise” by Tokio Hotel comes on. I had a next-door neighbor I’ll call V. V introduced me to all kinds of things; among them were Invader Zim, Tokio Hotel, and the idea of “bandom” in general. She had a cardboard cut-out of Robert Pattinson in the corner of her room. Robert stood watch as we listened to the Hot Topic hits she had downloaded on LimeWire (RIP) and I forced myself to like them. Tokio Hotel’s music often strayed into sad boy territory, but this was one of the few songs that didn’t make me feel like I was melting on the inside. “Noise” was my go-to favorite Tokio Hotel song, the one I’d bring up when making conversation with V’s friends as I stared longingly at their scene apparel and prayed for the wherewithal to someday enter my mall’s Hot Topic all by myself.

Music has an uncanny way of possessing us; at least, possessing our memories. From this Spotify adventure I find myself learning, if nothing else, that the songs from my childhood I consider to be “cringey” weren’t so in and of themselves, but rather became that way through the memories and experiences I associate with them. Each time I turn on my playlist (and a “private” listening session) I’m struck by the way the public presence of these songs, charged with memory, force me to relive what I might prefer to keep hidden.

As I conclude this piece, “Kingdom Come” by The Civil Wars comes on. It’s a good song, from the first movie in The Hunger Games series. I (age thirteen) went to the premiere with my friends. I wore a black pinstriped fedora with a white ribbon, and my prescription glasses were thick-rimmed and tortoiseshell (“geek chic”?). Although I have destroyed all photographic evidence of that time, the song remains and forces me to encounter its redeeming qualities; perhaps even the redeeming qualities of my cringey, young self (though I’m still not sure there are any). 

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the story of “what’s your story?”

I mentioned here that I was considering writing the history (and even future!) of “What’s Your Story?” on this blog, both for the edification of others and also as a keepsake & reminder for myself.

I, a first-year, entered the 300-level disability studies course already sharing something in common with the professor I did not yet know: both of us were unsure as to whether I was qualified to be there at all. Luckily, the class in question was a joy to work and “prove myself” in, and became a major factor in my final decision to take up critical disability studies as an informing area of my CST focus/specific course of study and research.

Although I gradually grew more comfortable in the class as the months passed,  I grew more anxious at the looming threat of our final projects. We were heavily encouraged not merely to write a paper (the required length of which was still longer than any academic work I had written in high school) but instead to transform our classroom knowledge into an action project of some sort. I did to some of the requisite research for a paper topic, in case possible action project plans fell through (as I feared they would). I ended up writing –– for a different class –– the paper whose topic I researched, and nervously proposed “some kind of open mic, speak-out sort of thing, that I am not calling a ‘support ‘group’ therapy session.”*

I had initially come upon the idea by considering my irritation with the traditional group-therapy model: patients sit in circles to publicly confess their sins to the all-knowing professional, who then –– instead of giving them Hail Mary’s –– imposes upon them pre-determined Coping Skills as though said respective skills are a magic bullet for all people who might share a common diagnosis. The name “What’s Your Story?” emerged from a similar sense of irritation at having to divulge my (mental health) history accurately, consistently, and with gradually-increasing (not too rapidly, lest I look like a faker) degrees of self-awareness that will eventually conclude with recovery; sanity.

I have heard the phrase “what’s your story?” in myriad forms, contexts, and tones. What each shares in common is that they are coming from the mouth of someone in power. These people –– in their quest to intimately Know you, the Other –– creates the very narratives about the “causes of mental illness” and the pictures of “what insanity looks like” that they believe they are searching us to discover!**

Given this, I quickly realized I had to take my story back and share it on my own terms.

I figured that a way to radically reinvent the “story” conversation was to bring into the open –– and dare I say, “fight the stigma!” (although I always hate sounding like a highway billboard or inspirational video) around existing-as-disabled. Although I did not have much access to the knowledge and experiences of people whose disabilities are marked as “physical,” I knew the questions of “what happened?” paralleled in many ways the demands for story-disclosure with which psychosocially disabled, mentally ill, etc. people are barraged.

I made posters, sent emails, created Facebook events as well as a distinct group for attendees/participants, and haphazardly coordinated the physical space in which the event would take place. I bought allergen-friendly food, created the transcript documents for peoples’ performances, and set/cleaned up the space. My professor had generously offered extra credit to any of my classmates who showed up at my event, which only slightly diminished my then-anxiety around low attendance.

The event turned out to be as successful as it was exhausting. It didn’t run as smoothly as more recent events have (obviously) nor was I brave enough to share something of my own at the time. I don’t remember precisely how long the first event lasted, but I remember it ran far longer than I had thought it would, mostly due to the group discussion that took place after the formal readings were over. It occurs to me in hindsight that this was the first time I had experienced such a well-attended, compassionate discussion on disability. I had set the parameters clearly beforehand: abled accomplices were welcome to listen & learn, and would become unwelcome upon any attempts to dominate the discussion or claim upheld expertise.

I don’t know who it was who suggested to pass around a paper, taking down emails of attendees who wanted more events like that one. If they’re reading this, they’re welcome to email me so I can give them the hug they are most certainly due come fall. The desire to speak for myself and with others like me, instead of speaking of myself and to those who erroneously claimed authority over my life experiences, was clearly shared.

So, the next semester, I planned another event. And then there was a zine. And another zine, accompanied by an event. And then there was Amsterdam, and I was very sad to have missed out on hosting what I’m sure would have been a great event with amazing people. I’m excited to move forward now that I will be back at Mount Holyoke for four more semesters.

There were a lot of unintended, useful things that came of “What’s Your Story?”: organizing experience, planning knowledge, on-the-ground knowledge of what event accessibility can look like, learning to edit aggregated content, learning to recruit contributors, learning to publicize events via word-of-mouth and social media. My resumé has thanked me 1,000 times over. This series of events has also brought me closer to innumerable peers who I may never have known well if it weren’t for “What’s Your Story?”.  Finally, having assisted in producing, and certainly seeing, the benefits of peer-based disability organizing and the sharing of feelings and knowledge as equals and not inferiors gives me a way to talk about alternatives to institutional medicine & psychiatry in the real world.

Unfortunately, there still exist the conditions that necessitate events like this. These are the conditions that lead people, when I first try to explain “What’s Your Story?” to them, to scratch their heads. The notion of unmediated wisdom coming from the mouth of a disabled person is unthinkable when the producers of knowledge we see all have Dr., or at the very least, LCSW, attached to their names. As someone who, relative to others like me, has an increased degree of autonomy over their life, I do feel a sense of responsibility to keep organizing these events simply because I’m able to. But also, every time I (re-)read a zine, attend an event, or even simply describe the event’s ethos to others (as I’m doing now) I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and fun. Yes, disability can be fun; we can commune to revel in each others’ brilliant imperfections (if you will) with no need, no desire for “fixing.”


* There exist far more overlapping terms that psych-professionals use to talk about professionally-mediated spaces in which disabled people come together, and almost all of these are shortened to “Group”, which tends to be used as though it’s a proper noun.

** Obviously, I was not thinking about this as a first-semester first-year, at least, not in those terms. As I reflect now, I’m able to use such concepts thanks mainly to theorist Sara Ahmed. I’m currently reading her (2000) work, “Strange Encounters,” in which she describes the way the ego’s desire for knowledge of “the strange(r)” produces the conditions that make people “strange(rs)” in the first place.

culturally not-too-shocking

When I was in middle school, I had a pen pal. I actually had several pen pals, but this particular pen pal was the only one who ever visited me in person. She was one year younger than me, Danish, fluent in four languages, and most importantly, willing to tolerate my pseudo-intellectual thirteen-year-old whining. She visited me in 2012, the summer before I started high school. I was, as usual, filled with anxiety as to our real-life meeting: I found myself more pleasant, more articulate, and more skilled at social interaction via text-based communication, than I ever was in-person*. My greatest fear, watching fliers from Copenhagen emerge from the terminal, was that this girl would take one look at me and regret coming to visit. That she would speak to me with words, not text, and any semblance of chemistry we may have had before would be erased.

And then she, jet-lagged and suitcase-toting, was there. My first observation was one of surprise; her hair was both longer and silkier than I had expected (in fact, it wasn’t until then that I realized I had any preconceptions as to her hair in the first place). We hugged on impulse and then once more, slowly, for the camera. Most of what I experienced around that encounter was anticipatory, rather than the result of actually seeing her. I felt the butterflies, made the “Welcome, Helene” sign, experienced stress at my own perceived inadequacies; once she actually arrived, at that one moment during which I had taken a break from holding my sign, I felt nothing in particular.

I was not thinking about Helene during my flight from Amsterdam to Boston; I rarely think of her now, as we lost touch several years ago. That said, she did cross my mind as I crossed the threshold from the terminal to the International Arrivals area. I realized that I was entering the very same area in which I stood six years ago, this time from a different angle. While waiting for Helene to meet us, my parents and I had maintained a cool distance from the door to the Arrivals area, which was loosely gated to avoid overcrowding. It was with a mix of embarrassment and satisfaction that I recognized my parents standing alone within gate’s limits this time, parked midway between the door through which I had come and the rest of the waiting crowd. No pictures were taken.

Helene, who stayed at my home for two weeks, experienced culture shock most explicitly during Fourth of July festivities and while eating her first-ever grilled cheese at a café in Mystic. The American habits of leaving one’s television on as background noise throughout the day and of taking daily showers both fascinated and concerned her. It’s very funny being the friend, family member, and/or guide of someone experiencing culture shock, as this experience forces one to look at the strangest aspects of their own culture as though they had not been inculcated with it from a young age. Although my peers and I were warned of the prospect of “reverse culture shock” prior to our return to the U.S., I did not experience culture shock so much as culture reminders.

It’s healthy, after all, to view American patriotism –– jingoism –– to the full extent of its concerning excess. This was excess I already knew of, but I was again reminded of it shortly after I deplaned. I saw more national flags –– and more propaganda imploring young travelers to join ICE or national military –– during those two hours than I had seen in over three months abroad. Going through immigration to once more enter the country was, of course, a bureaucratic nightmare, mitigated only by my whiteness and U.S. passport.

As I walked with a herd of fellow travelers toward a crowd of passport-scanning machines, we painstakingly wound through an empty maze of stanchions**. Clearly, Immigration was not content to leave such nightmarishness in the abstract. Listening to others’ complaints at the ludicrousness of taking twice as long to walk through the empty, cordoned-off area, I thought “this emblematizes perfectly the empty, illogical State (of) bureaucracy, especially as it relates to the crossing of arbitrarily-drawn borders!” (Actually, I didn’t think that at all –– I thought something more like, “How Kafkaesque, I’ll have to post it on my blog.”)

My other culture reminder was the large size and low price of beverages in the U.S. when compared to Amsterdam. When I got my much-needed cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (in one of my refillable mugs, which happens to be at least twice the size of any cup of coffee I ever received in the Netherlands), I was momentarily overcome by awe. This was only compounded by the fact that I had not tasted true Dunkin’ coffee since January***. I had also briefly forgotten that Coolattas existed, and was fascinated by the new-to-me flavors.

The small fears around reverse culture shock that I had had prior to my arrival were lessened by the knowledge that, no matter how weird “home” felt, it would never feel as strange and new as Amsterdam or Morocco had, and I had navigated the latter two without the help of my family.

And there, my culture shock (culture-reminding?) ended. At the bottom of a quickly-drained, massive, refillable cup of my beloved, weak, hyper-sweet coffee. Unlike my experience six years ago, I was not plagued by fear that I would disappoint the people I was meeting at the airport (insert tired, overused joke about disappointing one’s parents here). The small fears around reverse culture shock that I had had prior to my arrival were lessened by the knowledge that, no matter how weird “home” felt, it would never feel as strange and new as Amsterdam or Morocco had, and I had navigated the latter two without the help of my family.

Upon arriving home, walking into my house with its predictable smell, furniture, cool-darkness, and kitchen ants, I experienced my greatest shock since my return: the utter normalcy of it all. This, I remembered, is what the rest of my wardrobe looks like. These are all of the books I had forgotten to ache for. This is how it feels to be in charge of my own heating and air-conditioning. This is life, not for two weeks or a semester but long-term. Disappointment and lack of chemistry were non-issues between myself and my home life. I’m not a guest; we’re stuck with each other.


*Arguably, this is still the case.

**Despite their ubiquity, I did not know that those things were called “stanchions” until I wrote this post.

***I bought exactly one cup of coffee from a Dutch Dunkin’ Donuts, which tasted disappointingly similar to what I might expect from a Starbucks –– not pleasant when I was looking for a specific taste quintessential to my home life.

A panoramic view of NEMO's rooftop. To the left of the image, people stand in the distance, looking out at the clear blue sky, and harbor/city buildings below us. Moving toward the right, red flowers, then pink, then orange and yellow sit in rows, and people sitting in the distance and enjoying the weather become visible.

to summer-ize

Note: It looks like I’ve properly alt-texted the header image, but let me know if the caption/alt-text description isn’t working for you. In that case, I’ll fix it as soon as possible.

Lately, I have been doing “summer things,” although it’s not exactly summer. I’ve been turning on my music or podcasts and sincerely enjoying my walks to nearby cafés, meeting with friends to talk and work together. Several days ago, a friend and I sat and people-(and dog-) watched in a park I had never before visited. Notably, that day, I was also the object of others’ people-watching: I was asked in Dutch* if I was a “boy or a girl” by a bench-sitting, middle-aged man, whose eyes took me in with a squinting suspicion. (I made no reply, instead staring for a moment in bewilderment at the multilingual cissexism I had just experienced and then continuing on my way). Yesterday, a day even better than that one because it was just a little cooler and breezier, I went with two friends to a children’s science museum in Amsterdam called the NEMO. I valiantly resisted the urge to buy a book (overpriced compared to what it would sell for at a bookstore) and a t-shirt (unnecessary and touristy) from the gift shop. Obligatory shoutout to Natalie and Nora for helping me resist my consumerist temptations and being proud of me for doing so.

We spent time on the museum’s rooftop (in the header image), which was covered in flowers which were organized by color and breed and sat in thick rows between stone indentations filled with running water. It was a busy day on the terrace, but (surprisingly) not a particularly loud one. Somehow I think all of the snaps of cameras and conversations and splashing and laughter of children in their bathing suits dispersed themselves into the breeze instead of occupying too much soundspace on the roof. Today I feel summer again: although the forecast predicted rain this afternoon, the weather is clear.

I’ve long associated summer weather with “home,” an association strongly influenced by what will be fifteen years of annual “summer vacations” from school. This feeling of “home” is accompanied by a particular collection of memories, including one of coming home from my last day of school to see the fan in the living room window, sitting in front of it, and being offered a plastic-tubed Italian Ice from the freezer. Arriving back to velvet’s apartment to open, breezy windows and a fresh, juicy pear or pair** of clementines feels an appropriate progression of that childhood memory.

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.”

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.” In fact, I like here –– the weather has been and continues to be beautiful; my free schedule allows me to read, write, and work on my research independently while also sleeping in and partaking in activities on my own terms. It’s great! But I find myself feeling similarly to the way I feel around this time when I’m at Mount Holyoke. I find myself calling my mother just to hear her voice, whereas in previous months, weeks would pass between our calls. I find myself dreaming about things I never thought I’d miss, like conversations with acquaintances I would rarely otherwise engage with.

I even miss the dewy walk to work I made on so many mornings last summer, past the series of uniformly ugly houses with plastic kids’ toys strewn around the front yard and above-ground pools in the back that neighbor my own. Past the largish patch of dirt and brown, dying grass on the corner, walled by wooden posts and plastic tape and marked by a sign as “private property, do not enter.” Across the street between the liquor store and the Taco Bell-KFC hybrid. I miss the very mainstays of my small-town, even “hick”-adjacent lifestyle that I am also so glad to have escaped. I miss the very people and things that I am also glad to have had distance from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt homesickness in such a positive, hopeful way before. The hopeful weather must be helping. To make yet another cheesy reference to my childhood, this is the weather I associate with running out and greeting at recess and promptly throwing off my coat, swinging for the first time of the year in only my t-shirt. This particular memory involves me wearing a specific polo shirt, with large color-blocks of alternating green and teal, with a small embroidered butterfly on the breast.

Some in my program, I think, feel discouraged and decidedly unfree because of the demands of their independent research or internship. I feel lucky and grateful that I don’t feel that way anymore, although the specter of a lengthy assignment due so soon overwhelmed me at first. This doubled as I acknowledged that this would be (and already is) the longest academic paper I’ve ever written (and also probably has the longest bibliography of anything I’ve ever written). Because of this, my first week of independent research time felt a bit like school in the depths of winter (particularly November; the completion of finals isn’t quite yet in sight and yet you’re feeling the weight of a semester’s exhaustion on your shoulders and you are simultaneously overworked and over-anticipating the inevitable assignment of more work) I spent time anxious and hunched over my laptop with tired, sore eyes and ears so very sick of hearing the same four recorded interviews I’m using in the project.

This is the style in which I approach work: I grind out hours early into a project as if the year is starting and there’s, I don’t know, just been a snowstorm and I’m shoveling myself out of the driveway at 6:00am***. I go in with my proverbial shovel (or laptop, in this case) and work relentlessly. My engagement in the work becomes a positive feedback loop –– I become addicted to the feeling of success, the delight and crack of energy I feel at having laid out an important point, the distinct pleasure of finding an author or journal so perfect for my bibliography, so I continue to engage and that feeling grows exponentially. I liken those to the months of frigid temperatures and numb extremities I experienced in February and some of March. I was so busy and excited and exhausted at once and all of this was reinforced by the unrelenting cold. Cold temperatures themselves have a sense of inherent activity to them: they make it so I need to be vigilant, moving, and conscious in order to survive. The warming temperatures of spring allow for a sort of passivity that winter does not. Although the weather as I began my research was not as cold as it was in February, it was significantly worse than it is now. And as it has warmed, I’ve found myself less and less “busy;” more concerned with the minutiae of my research than overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I’m expected to turn in less than three weeks from now.

I feel just a bit like I’m on vacation at this point. It’s somewhat inconvenient to feel this way at the same time that others feel least able to to vacation-y things. But at the same time, my ability to enjoy my (not-exactly) “vacation” in a more solitary way is authentic to the experiences I’ve had almost every summer prior to this. In the morning I make coffee; maybe stay in my pajamas, maybe venture to the café. Read. Write. Work on my research and answer emails. Return. Eat at a leisurely pace. Visit with friends, sometimes; run errands; take a walk. Continue to revise and write my research paper. Come back in the cool evening and, after a hot shower, engage in some combination of fiction writing and personal reading. Read the news, hoping I can stomach whatever’s going on today. This was the way my days looked last summer, peppered with work shifts and outings. Producing this creative rhythm is as fun as actually engaging in it, making early-summer days some of the most…dare I say…lekker. When I get sick of this particular rhythm, I’ll be on a plane home. When I’m sick of my home-rhythm, I’ll have the fall semester to look forward to.

There are parts of knowing I’m leaving soon that are more bitter than sweet. I feel some frustration at myself for only recently exploring some beautiful study spots close to the apartment. I can’t help but laugh as I realize that it’s now, as I look toward leaving Amsterdam, that I can finally navigate the spaces within walking distance of the apartment and those within walking distance of SIT without Google Maps. The first time I walked from the apartment to the building where we took Dutch (different from the general SIT office building) using landmarks and common sense rather than my phone was one of our last days of Dutch class. Yesterday, when I had to take the tram to Central Station in order to get to the NEMO museum, it occurred to me that this was one of the first times –– if not the first time –– that I had used the tram without feeling intense anxiety. I think that the me that wrote about unfamiliarity several months ago would have taken the present shift as an indication that I was beginning to truly feel at home here, or something equally warm and fuzzy. I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I think I wrote previously on how I (ironically) tend to fall into the trap of thinking in binaries. I’ve learned recently that one binary I put faith in was that between Home (a comforting space I knew fairly well) and Not-Home (an uncomfortable space I do not know well). I was approaching Amsterdam like the guy on the bench who openly asked me my gender.

Are you Home or Not-Home, Amsterdam? Am I allowed to feel familiar, comfortable, and homesick at the same time? Amsterdam looks back at me with the silent bewilderment and disappointed humor with which I looked at that man. So, in this between-spring-and-summer weather, in this not-quite vacation period that feels quite like it, in this space of simultaneous homesickness and pleasure; of familiarity and distance…I sit. Troubling binaries, as per usual.


*I was pretty proud of myself to have understood this, given how bad I am at Dutch in general.

**The latest story I’ve been working on involves subtle wordplay, not the har-har punny kind I use to annoy/endear myself to others, but the kind that makes good quality poetry and prose fun to read, like a puzzle of words it’s satisfying to snap in place. It’s not like I’m good at this, but I do enjoy having fun with language without immaturely nudging-and-winking every time.

***To further expose myself as a weak, sensitive noodle of a(n aspiring) writer-academic, I’ll admit this: I’ve never actually shoveled a driveway.

lost time

Earlier this afternoon I wrote two paragraphs reflecting on my memories from these last several days in The Netherlands, my flight here, and the strange, enclosed feeling of being both far away from home and physically unable to go back. The completely different content of this actual blog post is a surprise to me, but the initial paragraphs I wrote remain true. I’m going to include them here:

I do not remember the first thing I said when my second of two planes, the one that took me from Paris to Amsterdam, touched Dutch soil. I do remember several notable airport occurrences: a mildly awkward conversation with my soon-to-be peers over Facebook Messenger, my brief period of panic when I thought I had lost my debit card (which I soon found in a pocket I infrequently use), my smile at a cheerful Dutch child and her mother while in a Starbucks line. I admit that I’m already having trouble remembering the details of that Monday afternoon. I remember seeing fields of sheep and geese, which were certainly comforting travel partners to have on the bus ride to our hostel. I remember choosing the hostel room that would hold three people instead of four; I remember my loud shock at the sheer adequacy of our hostel* and the panic that set in as I rested my head against the wall and realized I would be here for three and a half months.

The time duration of my stay here is something that still weighs on me. I suspect it’ll make me anxious for the next several weeks; maybe even for the entire duration of my program. There is something about trapped-ness in spacetime –– not necessarily in a small room or elevator, but rather inside a certain spot in my universe –– that panics me more quickly than almost anything else. I have a great fear of being buried alive, stuck in time, unable not only to get out of the dirt above me, but also to tell the world I am here and living.

*I had never previously stayed in a hostel, but I was expecting something far worse than we got. This one felt more like a hotel without some of the usual conveniences.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to talk about the events that transpired following the moment I saved those paragraphs and closed my laptop, ready to exit the overpriced café a short walk down the street from my apartment (I always work best in a café). I turned on my phone and messaged a friend, asking them if they wanted to visit a nearby vintage store (which was, as I would find out later, also overpriced: a situation undoubtedly aided by gentrification) with me. I quickly decided to visit an ATM prior to my friend’s projected time of arrival and continued down the same street on which I began, making my way to a grocery store with an ATM inside. Not long after I exited the store with my money did I realize I was lost and unable to find my way back to the café from which I came.

Getting lost is not unusual for me. It’s happened at almost every place I’ve ever visited, including, notably, Mount Holyoke’s campus (I somehow lost my way while walking to the library, spending at least fifteen minutes looking for the large, unmistakable building directly in front of me). But there is something so deeply frustrating about getting lost in one’s new home, especially the kind of lost which requires outside assistance. Hands freezing, phone battery rapidly draining and backpack laying headily on my back, I trekked up and down identical-looking stretches of road for over an hour. The “far-flung” place I ended up was not some obscure space on the other side of Amsterdam, but rather a Subway restaurant a mere ten-minute walk from the apartment.

Much to my chagrin, I had to text (and even once try to call) my host parent, velvet, to help me get home. Sitting by the drafty Subway doorway, I waited twenty minutes for velvet to arrive while staring intently at my water bottle and avoiding the eyes of confused (perhaps suspicious) patrons. I felt like a child, especially once velvet told me that the reason I had gotten lost was, most likely, simply because I left the grocery store through a different doorway than the one I had entered. Appropriately, it rained on the way home.

I had gathered some pride in myself over these past few days because I have navigated (literally and figuratively) travel to a new city in a relatively independent manner (although true “independence” is a fiction in our ever-interdependent world). At the moment velvet arrived to get me, it felt like my bubble of maturity had burst and given way to a childishness I had hoped to leave in America.

(I never ended up meeting my friend at the vintage store; they understood my desire to go home and get warm after having wandered around my neighborhood in the cold. Perhaps my situation was even for the best, given that I did not have the opportunity to waste Euros on used clothing priced highly for socioeconomically-privileged students like myself.)

There is no particular moral to this story, no larger philosophical meaning to be derived from “getting lost” in a new place; no lesson to extract. I am writing this down because I think I would like to remember it, and because I know that in the short term, it will heavily impact the way I move through the city and the way I plan my daily activities. Tomorrow, velvet is going to show me around the neighborhood; perhaps a tour by them will  assuage some of my fears around getting to class on time and in one piece on Monday. At this moment, I am glad to be inside the apartment, warm, and writing; a combination of activities during which I can’t stray too far afield. Although my initial post was going to center around the crushing, enclosed feeling of being “stuck” in a new place, I am going to be grateful for tonight’s relative stasis.

homebody

Content note: this post contains direct references to needles and blood (in the context of tattooing).

It is the day before I leave for Amsterdam and my newest little tattoo has healed very well. There was no need to wrap it in plastic; no need to sop up the inky fluids that drip from my wound. I simply moisturized the raised letters and tried hopelessly to extricate meaning from them. The tattoo is small enough that it will likely be hidden by a sock for the majority of my time in Amsterdam. Even when it isn’t hidden, an ankle is a very inconspicuous placement for a tattoo, hard to see unless you’re looking for it.  My initial plan for this tattoo had been to spice up the word homebody by accompanying it with a small doodle. I had even asked Spencer, who tattooed me, to draw up a few ideas, of which I struggled to choose just one favorite. Fortunately, that turned out to be a non-issue when I ultimately decided (with the help of Spencer’s own advice) to forgo an accompanying image altogether.

homebody

My “homebody” ankle tattoo.

The word homebody is etched into my ankle, sitting just above bone. It is the first stick & poke tattoo I have ever gotten; my first ever tattoo done by a non-professional; the first tattoo whose meaning I remained unsure of until almost a week after its completion. On its surface, the word homebody itself applies to me in a simple way: Arriving home after a day of work or class and being swallowed whole by my bed with a book in my hands is a quiet joy I look forward to. Arriving home after weeks or months elsewhere is a pleasure even greater than that. But inevitably I remember the too-familiar tightness of my own room, my own double bed, my towering bookcase, the mustard-yellow kitchen with its red drapes; the drafty, cavernous sunroom with three bookcases (two large, one small) inside of it; the front garden whose wild contents we are unsure of until they bloom ––  and I feel I am choking on a wad of comfort food too big to swallow, too hot to really taste. This tattoo might be a compromise, then: a piece of home stuck (and poked) into my skin, something to carry with me on an airplane even as I leave my loved ones behind. I could be simultaneously home and not-home. I quickly realized I could make its meaning even more cheesy if I acted as though it was a play on words to reference my recent mastectomy; I could riff on the way my body had since become a home. Everyone would love it. It would make sense to both my close friends and loved ones and to compassionate strangers. It would be a handy response to the what does it mean questions I am so frequently faced with. Homebody is an identity one could pull out of me upon looking at that ankle, one that that handy reply would confirm.

There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer.

I realize that those cheesy, simple meanings are fictional when I place myself back in the position of the tattooed object. It is only when I again become that object that I remember why I’m in the chair and paying for pain in the first place. There is a certain grammar to tattooing that I have come to love and anticipate, albeit not always consciously. To be tattooed is to be acted upon in a very distinct and predictable manner: there is the small talk, the stenciling, the cleaning, the opening, the laying, the opening, the pain, the opening, the wiping, (the opening), the cleanup. There is nothing particularly sentimental about being a canvas, but the release that comes with being one nevertheless feels like a prayer. Getting a stick & poke in someone’s room feels even more like a prayer because it is quiet: there is no buzzing needle, no metal music blaring and no consultations going on outside. The particular and repetitive stings of the stick & poke come silently and only a question, “you good?” reminds me that I am a person.  There are moments under the needle when I wish more than anything for the process to be complete and the moment it is done I am hit with a craving to continue. Afterward I always feel a sense of lightness. The pain I hate has been done to me and I have confronted it out of necessity. I can see that it has marked me although my memory can’t properly replicate the experience.

It was last night, alone with my racing thoughts, that I realized that my tattoo itself had little meaning, and that that was okay. The true significance of that tattoo was bound up in the ritual release of anxiety I hadn’t fully known I was holding and not in the aesthetics left in its wake. I had previously found it difficult to fully acknowledge the reality of my trip and the length of time for which I’d be abroad: that, after all, would make it too real. I bottled the feeling until I finally attached it to the outside of my body, visible to myself and to whoever bothered to look. Permanently. I matched my pain and fear with its physical counterpart, finding a kind of synthesis in their acquaintance.

Some people write to redirect their pain. For me that is not the case: writing simply narrows and amplifies it (I’m feeling a great amount of residual fear as I write this). Tattooing, a mindless, effortless, excruciating exercise, one in which I have no choice but to passively face a wave of physical pain, is a true act of sublimation. My body is already vulnerable in a way I rarely allow my mind to be. It will sting and I feel terror inside me for the half-second before the needle first hits my skin. Those weaknesses inside me that I need to face are brought to the surface like leaking blood and cast into the garbage with reddish cotton pads, damp with blood and astringent. My body does what it is intended to do: it becomes a surrogate for the things inside my mind.

The meaning of my tattooed ankle isn’t located in the lines and shapes that form its letters. There is no drawn symbol there that I can pass off as some precious decoration. The tattoo’s meaning is made of and resides in pain itself. It isn’t a symbol of home or body, nor is it a symbol of identity and nostalgia. Its significance lies in the process that made it. Tattoos are physically and psychically transformative: they are fresh bodily adornments that alter one’s skin forever, but they also turn emotional energy, concentration, hurt, creativity, terror, pain, and pleasure into something tangible. I did not know last Sunday that I so desperately needed to hold and rub my anxieties with the moisturizer on my desk. I didn’t know how much I needed to feel them burning tenderly into me in the hours following the stick & poke session. I needed a ritual through which I could assimilate these soon-to-be-realized fears into my life without being governed entirely by them. In and on my ankle sit the outlines of fears that have been realized in their fullness.