Fate is Fatal

Photo Credit: Author

 

Toni Morrison once said that if you can’t find the book you want, write it.

I only discovered that quote two years ago, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve been living it since I was twelve, when I wrote my first novel in a fit of rage.

Or arrogance. I prefer not to wax philosophical about it.

The reason for my rage was that one of my favorite book series at the time had not finished with the outcome I wanted. So, I decided to write my own version of it. I would like it noted that it wasn’t a very well written novel. For example, here’s a small passage: “We all have a purpose in this life, Creston, but this isin’t ours, to destroy everyone else with our greif this is not what our parents wanted from us and you know it!” That was page ninety-seven, in the middle of a very dramatic scene between two villains.

My misspelling of grief and isn’t was intentional. I not only misunderstood the point of contractions, but I had very strict rules about punctuation back then, (meaning I did not believe in the use of it) so the entire book is just one continuous sentence, consisting of about seventeen paragraphs. I thought it was the most ingenious piece of Literature since The Bible, and thus dubbed it Fate is Fatal. I passed it around to close friends and teachers, hungry for feedback.

That fact strikes horror into my soul, for the reasons mentioned above. Why didn’t anyone just force me to use a period? However, back then, I only felt terror at the prospect of other people seeing my work. Did that mean I was a writer? I spent every spare moment editing and adding to this story, compiling a folder of new ones. They loitered on the home screen of my parent’s old desktop computer, which glitched out every few moments. Yet still I wrote. Still I edited. Still, I handed out my improperly punctuated and grammatically incorrect novel.

I wanted more, but I was afraid of what that meant.

After all, DID WRITERS EVEN GET PAID?

As a child, I had always assumed that writing was a volunteer job, similar to working at a soup kitchen on Sundays or picking up diapers from the side of the road. You know, they’re all very noble endeavors, but not an actual job. It was philanthropy. Beautiful and useless. My fear festered years after that first novel, bled into my self-confidence.

Eventually, I stopped shoving my book into the hands of random strangers, I barely mentioned to anyone that I wrote. Yet I cradled the zebra-striped, broke-spine journal that held my first novel close to my chest.

Every day, I would sit at the croaking, stiff computer chair in my family’s living room. I endured the ten-minute long whir of an old desktop as it prepared itself. Those nights when insomnia crept along the shadows and crooks of my imagination, I would sneak into the living room and write. I filled hundreds of word documents with gibberish, which is to say, stories about flying people, knights, queens and shape-shifting wolves. I read ravenously and wrote reinterpretations of what I had read. It was as if I fancied myself a critic, or a fanfic writer, either one.

I dreaded what this meant, to be so in love with what I saw as “useless work.”

Now, I have added poetry (spoken and otherwise) to the files on a subsequently healthier laptop. I stash my old journals in the bottom drawer of my desk; and take them out only when old fears start to rear to the surface. It is the same terror that beleaguers most writers. I fully expect to stumble awake and realize punctuation is real and I live beneath a bridge. I wonder what ignorant mistakes I’ve hidden between paragraphs and sentences now, and if secretly my readers are laughing at my stupidity. In the spare moments when the world slows enough for me to hear my own breath, I contemplate if this passion that seemed so magical when I was thirteen is only a shadow of what the world truly needs. I wonder if I am only a shadow, gesturing desperately at the sunlight behind me.

Yet even as those fears remain, I understand now what useless work looks like. I have observed people who spent their lives doing absolutely nothing, but they did so for good reasons. Those who undertook hurtful actions with good intentions. I empathize with them, because they, too, fear waking up beneath bridges, the world having spun out of orbit.

Yet that empathy only spurs me to write more. Yes, writers don’t get paid the big bucks (or any bucks, commonly) but writing itself is not useless work. I attribute any and all of my successes to the fact that I love books. The skills I use daily, whether it be for a class project or contacting any number of people for fundraising, I have only because I started rage-writing a novel at the age of twelve.

As Toni Morrison said, I understood something was missing, and decided to fill it with myself. Maybe that was a stupid idea. Maybe I should relocate to the nearest bridge now, but I doubt it would help. I’d only keep filling the voids, gesturing desperately at the light, misspelling simple words, and tucked safely into my bottom drawer would be a broke-spine, zebra-printed journal.

The Problem of Plaster

Darcy in England

Image Credit: Darcy Christoffersen

 

It was my first day in England and I was already bleeding.

I had just endured a 24-hour travel day that consisted of two six-hour flights, a three-hour layover in-between, a two-hour bus ride to York, and all with about four hours of sleep. I was exhausted, hungry, and I was feeling overwhelmed at being outside of the country for the first time.

And now I was bleeding. I am not entirely sure how I’d managed to injure myself after only a few hours in the country, but it had happened—most likely from me getting a papercut or hitting my finger on the edge of a door (that’s a common one). Regardless, I was bleeding and I couldn’t find a Band-Aid.

I walked up to one of the York St. John Global Guide, students at the school whose job was to help international students adjust to their time at York, and asked, “Excuse me, do you have a Band-Aid?”

She gave me a blank stare and replied, “What’s a Band-Aid?”

In my sleep-deprived brain, I stupidly replied with, “You know a Band-Aid. Like that thing that goes on your cut when you bleed to stop the bleeding.”

She and I stared at each other for a moment. Neither one of us entirely sure what the other was thinking. I literally had no idea how to describe a Band-Aid, as I had never tried before. Everyone I had ever talked to knew what it was. I turned to my best friend who was there with me to ask her how she would describe what a Band-Aid was, but before I could, the Global Guide stated, “Oh! I know what you’re talking about. But, uh-I don’t remember what it’s called.”

She then turned to another Global Guide and tried to describe to him what I wanted. He appeared confused and shook his head, so I said, “A Band-Aid?

He also stared at me, as if trying to figure out the answer from my blank stare. After our stare-down, he shrugged his shoulders and turned to another Global Guide. This time though, she knew what I was talking about.

When I said that I was looking for a Band-Aid, she said, “Oh a Plaster?”

Plaster.

What a freaking weird name to me. When I think of “plaster,” I think of an art supply, or something that is used in a DIY house project. Not something that you used to stop the blood rushing from my finger.

But that was just the beginning.

Throughout my time studying abroad, I would see many more differences between America and the United Kingdom.

For example, there was an event hosted by the Global Guides that celebrated different countries around the world. The American table hosted the game: British English vs. American English. From “trash can” to “rubbish bin,” “fries” to “chips,” or “cotton candy” to “candy floss,” it was kind of amazing to see how, although both countries speak English, some simple words could differ so much. I remember there were many times that I asked for “fries,” and the British person taking my order would automatically reply, “chips?”

I distinctly remember another time where I struggled with the differences in language. I was at a restaurant in my early days at York, and I was unsuccessfully looking, like my life depended on it, for the bathroom. I was embarrassed to ask anyone where the bathroom was (because I didn’t want to seem like a dumb American), and I figured that that it would be easy to find. I was wrong. I spent a solid five minutes walking around the restaurant, searching for the stupid bathroom.

Eventually, my need to go pee outweighed the embarrassment I felt about searching so hard to find the stupid bathroom, so I asked the waitress. She stared at me, almost like I was a puzzle that she didn’t understand, and then pointed at a door that said “WC.” At that point, I didn’t care what the words meant, I just wanted to go to the bathroom. But, I would later find out that the WC meant “Water Closet,” aka the bathroom. This proved to be another of many instances, in which I struggled to overcome the language differences between British English and American English.

And it all began with me asking for a Band-Aid and them giving me a plaster.

 

By: Darcy Christoffersen

Back to the Fields

Cotton Fields

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ken Lund

They take you when you’re young. The developmental years, when little, little minds are still malleable like warm copper, empty buckets for the filling, wide eyes glancing around and stubby fingers grab-grasping for everything in reach. When you’re still young enough for ghost stories to leave an impact. This is when they take you.

You step off the bus and into the shade, sunshine streaking through the leaves and falling like golden acorns in the grass. The cypresses – the oaks – they stretch high overhead, backs arched in sweet, ballet curves, their limbs draped in lumpy mats of pale, Spanish moss. You take a deep breath, itty nostrils flaring, and it’s all dew, and dirt, and rusted wrought iron.

The plantation house sits up ahead. Tall, quiet, vaulted mansions with windows propped open and the wide, French doors splayed, welcoming. The granite columns at the front, the corkscrew railing on the porches, the number of floors and windows you count – these all change each year depending on the house you visit. All but the color. Every plantation house you’ve ever seen has been white. Every single one.

They take you up to it in a neat, single file line. The docent or owner or owner’s child comes out to meet you, smiling sweetly, endeared and indulging and patiently guiding your class inside. They begin to talk, about the owners and the history and the renovations. You stop listening (the speech so glossy, so curated, it bores you to death) and look around instead.

These old houses always smell like lacquered wood and ammonia. Worn, Persian rugs and gobs of sunbaked, black-tar tobacco. You hate the Victorian-Greek-Roman styled furniture, all embroidered throw pillows and claw-footed chairs and floor-length, billowing curtains, because you can see the ghosts. The posh, poufy people who used to lived here: big-gowned Southern belles flapping their frilly fans and mustached military men poised regally by the mantle, watching you move by with dark, narrowed eyes. You shuffle past the parlors faster than all the other rooms.

You step out of the back door and into the warm, wet air. You follow the line of children through the backyard, yanking handfuls of gnat-filled moss off trees and stuffing them into your overalls.

The building you come to is small, thatched roof, usually cream-colored, a few windows and two doors with three or four slanted steps going up to them. They tell you each time that it isn’t large enough for the whole class to fit – that you’ll have to break into groups and take turns going inside. You wait at the back, flanked by your friends, inching up in the line every time a new group goes in.

The world grows quieter around you the closer you get to the house. You grow quiet with it. You know what’s coming.

When it’s finally your turn, you step inside. It’s little (like you), wooden from walls to floor to ceiling, with thin-framed beds and bunks pushed up against the walls. Sunlight seeps through cracks in the floorboards below your feet, through mud-speckled windows to your left and right, and it gives the room a stuffy sort of glow.

Slaves’ quarters, the guide says. Their tone is softer now, solemn, like the low-note bell that rings above some of the older churches you’ve been to.

The guide starts off on talks of crops and trade and humanity (words still so practiced, so proper, tip-toeing on porcelain egg shells), and you move around the room. Your palms hover whisper-soft over splintered frames, fingers brushing streaks over the window glass. Every step creaks, drops a sprinkling of something from the ceiling above that glitters in the window light. You can smell the ammonia, the dirt, the sweat, ground into the walls here. You can see the uneven, scrubbing spirals sanded into the floor.

You can hear the sobs carried on the dust.

You go outside then, and stand with the rest of the children, and you don’t say a word.

They take you to the cotton fields next, always. Dirt the color of burnt gold and pencil-thin brambles tipped off by fluffy, white poms. You’ve seen plenty of these so far, but you’ve never gotten over the color of the cotton stalks, the shade of the thorns. A deep, dark crimson.

During the winters, they look like fields of blood.

You squat at the edge of the rows, tucking a few wisps of raw cotton into your pockets alongside the moss, your eyes searching out across the ground and sweeping. The sun comes down in heavy, hot pulses, and the wind just can’t wiggle through the tree cover to get to you, so you sit there. You sweat. You stare.

You see the ghosts here, too. Kneeling hunched back over the brambles, baskets at their sides, sweat on their dark brows, cracked lips tugged down. You see the military men prowling along the edges, their starch, leather boots sunk ankle-deep in the dirt. You see the belles peering out from the windows of the house.

This, you think to yourself. I came from this.

The thought is quiet but true. So true it ties you up inside, knots and knots and knots. Seems unreal, even while you hold palmfuls of cotton in your little hands.

You resolve yourself to hold onto this. To never let these ghosts leave you, like they can never leave this field – those quarters – that house. Something so deeply, innately a part of you that you never before realized, are determined never to lose sight of again.

This. I came from this.

By: Claire Pillsbury