She searches the antiques shop looking for something haunted. It started as a game, searching for the most cursed items they could find–a framed photo of a child dressed in a white Victorian gown, the parchment edges fraying and the image itself faded and full of scratches. The trinkets of their own childhood or their parents’ glassware choices littered among the piles, marking their own passage of time on this Earth. To walk among the ruins of paraphernalia, other people’s discards, is to face one’s mortality. It is at once a history lesson of the things we deem worthy enough to save and refurbish and what we’re willing to throw away.
She fancied herself a savior in this way. Taking an old chair, stabbed through its middle, its foam guts oozing out. A fur coat missing some thread. She could fix the coat and wear it while sitting in her reupholstered chair and look wistfully out her window and fancy herself as someone who appreciated the overlooked, the history of other people’s things, a nostalgia whore. In this way she clings to other people’s pasts she continually puts off encountering her own. How much easier it is to traipse from town to town, shop to shop, wandering the disorganized aisles, wondering about all the lives that aren’t hers. Wondering if one day she’ll be forgotten too. If some future nostalgic woman will one day pick at her clothes and her high school photographs squirreled away into laminated albums.
All she wanted was to leave a legacy. All she wanted was to not be forgotten. She communes with the dead, pulling cards, reading the stars, seeking answers in dreams. She is waiting for an answer that never comes, surrounded by the old records and liquor bottles and other knick knacks, thinking that’s enough. She bats away at the voice in her head, looking for something else, but ghosts will continue to haunt until they’re heard.
It is possible to be not dead and yet not fully alive, hiding inside your own skin, haunted by your own mind. But she thinks of none of that as she takes her purchases and walks out into the daylight, blending in amongst the happy people as if she isn’t weighed down by what she carries. As if she wasn’t a ghost herself with unfinished business.
I guess I could tell you her name, but her name doesn’t matter.
She is her mother, her grandmother, her great-grandmother.
Her sister, her aunts.
She will one day become part of her daughter, her niece, her granddaughter – if there are any to be had.
They are wrapped up in one identity, one woman.
A personality that experiences an upgrade with each generation.
Some wonky, some improving on the last.
Try as they might to outrun it, they can’t escape destiny.
Can’t escape genetics, ancestral history. This lineage. These women.
In a past life reading, she experienced herself by a river, alone in the woods, a cold log cabin behind her with wailing children, no husband in sight – presumed dead, or missing, or deserted.
It happened that way to many women. Men gone dead, or missing, or deserted.
Women were always more suited to the task of facing daily battles head on. In the home, there is no retreat. No white flag to wave when there are empty mouths to feed, breasts leaking with nourishment.
She tries to channel this woman, sitting cross-legged in her warm room in meditation. She empathizes, how they must have been alike. Resentful to any confines. Born with so much fight within them. All thinking they must have been born during the wrong time.
But her version of this personality has come far by comparison. Her foremothers would scoff to see her now, surrounded as she is by all her convenient accommodations, how easy she has it – what does she have to complain about?
Or would they be proud to see her still charging ahead, despite everything, knowing there was something better. Speaking up for the women before her who couldn’t. Who held their tongues or were otherwise silenced. Or found themselves drifting down the cool waters of the river, allowing it to deposit them into the mouth of something more cruel and sinister.
She interlaces her fingers over her belly, feels her stomach rise and fall with each breath. Inhale…exhale…Time moves more slowly as she holds the air at the back of her throat. When she concentrates like this, she realizes how often she forgets to breathe. How rarely her inhalations travel all the way down to the pulse she can now feel against her hands; how her hurried gulps get trapped in the shallow of her chest instead.
“Tell me why you’re here,” the doctor is poised, cross legged, on the other side of the table.
She never thought she’d be in this position. This cliche, recumbent on this designer couch in this chic office in this sleek office building. Or maybe she knew she was always destined to end up here, which is precisely why she avoided it for so long. Racking up problems instead, as if to make the most use of her time.
Why wasn’t she here?
The collection of cells that sat in her womb and expelled themselves time and again. The way she was touched and called at, like the way so many other women before her were touched and called at. The way she watched the generation of women before her stare catatonically into space while their children played, witnessed them collecting little white pills, swallowing them down in daily ritual, sometimes transforming them into something perky and playful, and at other times, leaving them locked in dark bedrooms like looming shadows. The way the elder women joked about not wanting to be here – not now, not then. When had women, historically, ever been happy? Would she ever be happy? Was she allowed?
It was a typical female problem. Not even interesting. So commonplace as to be boring. Hysteria, they once called it. Depression. Disillusionment. Or, a normal reaction to living in these times.
“I guess,” she started, her eyes darting around the room at the books lining the shelves against the colorful rugs matching the bespoke artwork adorning the walls. “I don’t know how to be a person in the world anymore. I don’t know how to be normal.”
As if there ever was a normal, a place to return to, instead of some perpetual becoming.
That same woman is there again, poking out of the corner of her mind. She’s always there, haunting her, following her. The therapy didn’t erase her. Neither did the pills. Nor the yoga, the exercise. Everything people told her to do. She went to healers. Perhaps an exorcism is what she needs. Or forking over too much money to some old woman to wave a cluster of herbs her way and make it all disappear.
What she needs is to get away from here. Away from her life. From people. She didn’t fit here, anyway. And they could always find her, if they needed to. Not that she wanted them to. But if they absolutely needed to.
She’d drive and find a spot in the woods, set up a tent, paddle down the river. Build her own fire and fall asleep as its embers slowly dimmed to nothing. Walk and walk and walk until her thoughts couldn’t keep up. Until she was new again. Empty. A blank canvas. Only then would she be ready to return to the world, prepared to be painted upon once more. Splattered. Marked by her experiences with some new design.
But what if she stopped allowing other people to push themselves onto her? What if she was the one in charge of her own creation?
In school, they completed an exercise she found trite at the time. “A letter to your future self.” What would she tell herself now? What would she warn about? What does she still hope for in a few years’ time?
At the same age, she relied on women’s magazines to tell her who she was, taking quiz after quiz. And then the internet came, more quizzes, trying to suss out her personality. Looking to others to give her an explanation. Why am I like this? But no answer was ever sufficient, could ever fully explain.
But as night turns to day turns to night turns to day, she’s still the same. Any identification or reflection falls off of her like silk and she’s left with only her core self.
She’s trying to let that be okay. She’s trying to let that be enough.
When you’re in a cocoon, you don’t know how long it will be for.
You worry the time is endless, that this is your life now, this darkness, this confinement.
You don’t see how you’re transforming, hidden and imperceptible as it may be.
But you’re burgeoning, aching to break free.
Some people prefer you here, kept neatly in your box. They like being outside of you, looking in as you dangle from a branch, afraid you’ll drop, afraid you’ll crack open, afraid someone might accidentally crush you beneath their foot, or eat you alive, or worse, forget about you entirely.
But just because others aren’t fluttering around you at all times doesn’t mean they’re not there, rooting for you, waiting for you to spread your wings.
Look at how beautiful you are, now that you’ve broken free. How colorful, how elegant, how unencumbered and unafraid.
Look at how you fly – no one to pin you down, though there are always predators looming.
Look at how you look at the ones who doubted you, so far away from you now back on the ground. Their feet firmly planted. Unable to take flight.
They forgot about your power. They forgot you knew how to transform. That the ability to evolve and change is your signature move. What you were born to do.
So you keep soaring–up, up and away, until they’re completely out of sight.
Left behind, alone with their envy and their unhappiness all tangled up together weighing them down, keeping them stuck, perpetually in place.
The years go by and you visit new lands, circle back to them, but they’re still right where you left them.
While you do nothing but rise.
Catching a glimpse of yourself in a reflecting pool, you’re unrecognizable. You’re stunned to see who you’ve become.
Believe it, it’s you. The version of yourself you’ve been waiting for.
Exactly right as you are.
Have you ever tried to remove wallpaper? It’s an absolute bitch. It’s designed that way. Wallpaper doesn’t like change. I guess the manufacturers aren’t capitalists in that way. Once you choose a pattern it’s stuck on your walls forever. This is who you are now, plastered around your living space for all to see. Year after year, unchanged. An embarrassment. You pick at it, it peels on its own, but it can never be fully removed. There’s always a reminder, a wisp of it, following you, haunting you. You can cover it, sure, but you’ll always know the original choice is there, buried underneath. Layers and layers of it. A domestic archeological dig. First your grandmother’s floral pattern, then your mother’s. But you are ready for a new design. Fresh paint, fresh walls entirely – a blank canvas. Ready to etch something new, something lasting.
It’s okay to carry these threads from our pasts. All art is informed by its history, and by its present. So are we. It’s naive to think otherwise. That we’re not the products of the people who put us here, and the people who came before us. We think we’re blank canvases ourselves, but if you pull at a thread, you’ll unravel what lies beneath – a knowing as deep as the ocean, as expansive as a meadow. In this undoing, we excavate our past selves, discovering who we are. Do not fear this process – embrace it. Let it lift you up, versus holding you down.
You may have walked through life thinking there’s a target on your back, but what if that was merely a marking so your guides could more easily spot you? Could more readily help you create the life you truly desire? What if we weren’t so afraid of attacks, and instead allowed ourselves to be open to possibilities? We don’t have to be each others’ enemies, even though it sometimes feels that way. Life is a process of figuring out the difference – who is there to help or hurt.
We understand, your wings were clipped early. But look, you can still fly.
Help others remove the tags that weigh them down. Help others remember they have the ability to take flight. Show them you aren’t an anomaly.
Imagine how beautiful, how powerful it will be once you’re all together in the sky.
Don’t you see…
She is you.
She is all of us.
These instructions are yours.
Take them. Use them as you see fit. Ignore them completely. Set your own path.
You hold your fate in the palm of your hand.
Soft and delicate. Anxious with anticipation. Ambition. Or somewhere in between.
Why does one have to be opposite the other?
The lines were always blurred.
You thought this was a mess, at first.
But it turns out…
It’s a masterpiece.
You are held
You are supported
You are opening your mouth
And what you make is beautiful
Because it’s yours.
Because it came from you.
Because you’re perfect
Just as you are.
Always have been.
Always will be.
Look at yourself, you fucking beautiful creature.
We will hold up the mirror as a reflecting pool
Until you see it too.
Chelsea Stephen is a Portland-based artist. She sometimes dips in the digital realm and sometimes plays in the analog realm, and occasionally the two collide. She finds influence and inspiration in the crassness of all creatures and the absurdity of human thought.