Through the Looking Glass: The Mundane Miracle of Resilience
In Tomas Tranströmmer’s poem “The Blue House” (1997), a man stands in the woods outside of his home and sees with new eyes. It is as though he were dead and suddenly flooded with sight. Before him, the house transforms into a child’s drawing. The timber is heavy with sorrow and joy. The garden is a new world awash with weeds. The walls and ceilings tell a story different than he remembers. At the end of the poem, everything falls away except for a single image: a battered ship setting sail on raging seas. Each of our lives is trailed by a phantom life, he asserts, “a sister vessel which plows an entirely different route.”
In the life that runs alongside my own, I come to Dartmouth with my parent’s permission, and I leave as I came, whole and deeply proud of my accomplishments. My mother and I talk every day and no one is disowned. I travel to Kenya for a fellowship and no men from the military pull me off the bus to solicit me for sex. Each day, I travel through the country unafraid. I go to work, and I love it. A man does not walk into my room and demand I marry him. He does not assault me after. Nothing is labeled as my fault. Instead of becoming debilitated by fear and anxiety, I swell with courage. I make it to 20 unscathed.
When I return to Dartmouth, I do not become a foreign country foaming at the mouth. The nightmares do not make a meal of my small body. I wake up and feel like I belong in the world. I repeat this every day until I believe it. I speak and am heard. I speak and speak and never stop speaking. No one assaults my friends or sends us death threats and the women I love are unraped. My professors understand about the panic attacks and the late assignments and the poems I turn in instead of essays. They do not believe me to be stupid or lazy or overwhelmingly underprepared. I am not called nigger dyke, no slurs are written on walls, and I am a good girl who behaves well. My good behavior saves me. I rise to meet the swelling tide of my deepest desires. I study abroad, I dance carefreely in frat basements, I make white friends, and sometimes, they invite me to their summer homes. I take internships and work multiple jobs and save all of my money. I am unassaulted and unassailable. The president recognizes my humanity and the humanity of others. He makes sure that every student, even the ones whose parents have no money to threaten his college, have their needs met. No one is neglected.
Two years pass and I have time to breathe. It is senior fall and of course, I am doing thesis research because I am whipsmart and have been preparing since sophomore year. Three days before I go back to my parents with all of my research complete, I make a terrible mistake. I share a hotel room with a friend I trust, and he takes advantage of me. I scrub my tongue as many times as it takes to wash out the scent of uninvited shame, but I cannot shake it. I panic. I did it again. I did not say “no” enough times for it to matter. In a fog, I walk off a train two days later without my passport or laptop or research. All is lost. It takes me two weeks to get home. It is winter and I am six months from graduating. I drop out of classes and lie awake with nightmares. I did it again. I destroyed our American Dream.
In the last year and a half, as my life swam further and further away from the ghost ship at sea, I became consumed by the image of water running back into the glass that spilt it. I was convinced that if I had just not gone to Kenya, not traveled through Europe, not protested, not trusted that a man would not take advantage of me in a hotel I paid for, not lost my thesis research and belongings on a train two days after, not asked for help when I needed it, not taken time off — if, instead, I had just kept taking classes, processed the assaults faster, told my mentors what was going on when it was going on or stopped blaming myself for not singlehandedly changing my family history — things would have turned out differently.
And they might have, if I were a character in a book. What I wanted was not clarity but to reach so far back into the many lives I did not live that I unzipped my mother’s pain and my father’s pain, until they too stepped out of their lives, lithe as baby antelope. What I wanted was what every immigrant kid wants — to save their parents the torment of a difficult and disappointing life by circumventing every disaster before it reaches home.
But the lives that shadow us like lost children are not ours to claim. What is ours to claim is all the language in our mouth and the world before us. And for black women especially, what’s ours to claim is self-forgiveness and permission to live messy, vulnerable, meandering and contested lives filled with bad decisions, healthy choices, kind folks, the space to mess up and lots and lots and lots of love. Because as much as we look to the other life to anchor us — the life in which we are thinner, more beautiful, happier and more successful — there is also the other, more dangerous life we are not living: the one where we say no to the things that scare us, where we are less tender, more quiescent and deeply afraid of our own brilliance. The lives we lead is the middle road between the two.
Two and a half months ago, I returned home only to have my home burn down in a thunderstorm. I remember mostly my mother’s shrill scream about going back for the neighbor’s children. I remember thinking, this is not my life. This is not possible. From our neighbor’s woods, I witnessed orange flames lick around the flesh of our home until everything blackened to ash before me. It had never been more clear that everything was possible. Homes burn down. Friends get raped. Institutions try to convince you that your labor and productivity are the sum total of your worth. And yet, homes are rebuilt through the love and deep faith of a community which believes wholeheartedly in your deserving. Friends heal and heal and heal again. You find your words and use them to create a loving, more just world where the sum total of your worth is your humanity.
What I learned from the fire that destroyed my family’s home was that it did not destroy my family or our self worth. And that everything with the power to destroy also has the power to give new life; so we took our new lives, and we loved each other.
My refugee family’s survival, like my own at Dartmouth, was a radical act of resistance as much as it was a miracle of resilience, deep faith and the black community. What I learned from my time at Dartmouth, I learned from folks working to destroy it from the inside. My education began and ended with two questions: What are you willing to fight for and what are you willing to put forth for your own liberation? To those, I add: What do you love? What do you believe? And what sinuous want are you leaning your small body against hoping this time the rope won’t snap? Lean into it. Lean into it again, and again until it does. And then, ditch the rope and rise to meet the swelling tide of your deepest desires.