Let's talk about our feelings.

How deeply do you have to hide something before you can claim it never happened?

Volume 2

Preface

Conner Singh VanderBeek

Voice of the author

When we realized the inadequacy of reaching out to others, we turned to creative outlets. And when writing wasn’t enough, we just became frustrated.

The silence surrounding mental illness is pervasive. Those who are struggling with it are seldom able to develop a vocabulary for expressing what they are experiencing, whether through an effort to understand things for themselves, or in conversation with others. I am afraid to reach out to anyone, because I know what I am going through is hardly the most difficult thing happening in my inner circle. I’m employed. I wake up to my alarm in the morning. That’s already more than I can say of myself from a year ago. I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling this way – that the thoughts circling in my head aren’t worth bothering others over, so I write.

But writing is just a translation of the feeling – the foggy brain, the heaviness of dread in the chest to words that come into the world stripped of their original viscerality, because they are words and not feelings. You may see them, you may read them, but you do not see me. So I ask for help.

But how, exactly, does one ask for help? I picture a conversation over tea with a close friend or family member, but I just moved here. I think of asking a recently-made friend, but I play the scenario in my head over and over until I inevitably become mistrustful of that person. So I write.

My words continuously fail me. Or is it a failure of translation? Of the urgency I feel for myself, paired with the nonchalance with which I bring it up to others? Of the meticulous curation of the words I write, chosen explicitly to emulate a feeling of control? I’ve learned to doubt that anyone else has the answers, so I stay quiet.

Volume 2 of Let’s talk about our feelings. explores how we express our experiences when conversation has otherwise failed. Contributors were asked to share pieces of creative writing, with the stipulation that they would publish under their real names – adding the question of if and how we abstract our stories when we must tell them ourselves.

Preface - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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The Brick House - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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“The Brick House”

Miki Nagahara

Voice of the author

 

It was called Graham House. Innocuous, tucked between a freshman boys’ dorm and a residential home on the southernmost edge of campus, the brick building exuded an air of abandonment.

            “What is that?” I asked an upperclassman friend in the first week of my freshman year.

            “Oh, that’s Graham house,” he said, and on seeing my blank look of non-comprehension he quickly added, “it’s where the crazies go. You know, people who have ‘issues’ that need to be sorted out.” I nodded emphatically, determined not to let on that I had no idea what he meant.

           

Whispers flitted through freshman class. David was required to attend weekly sessions at Graham House because he was caught with weed. Amelia cut herself. If she didn’t go to the therapist, they were going to kick her out. I didn’t know any of them.

           

In our first weekly All-School Meeting in the Chapel, where we were systematically exposed to the notion that we were the chosen ‘leaders of tomorrow’ the head of school told us to look up at the ornate carvings of angels adorning the pillars of our high-ceilinged sanctuary and choose one to be our “guardian.” In times of hardship, she said, which we were sure to encounter in our four years at this challenging institution, we would look up to this angel for comfort and solace. How nice, I thought. They want us to do well here.

           

Freshman year was a blur of self-discovery, juvenile blunders, social angst, optimism. Sophomore year we believed we knew better, that we knew how to do things properly.

           

Junior year.

Wake up. Go to class. Lunch. Class. Go to after-school sport. Dinner. Practice violin. Do homework. Repeat.

           

Walking to English that Friday, I could feel my heart beating. Thud, thud, thud. I felt a tingling of dread outlining the corners of my consciousness.

           

Up the stairs. Thud, thud, thud. In class, terrified to speak, terrified to be called on, I watched my illustrious classmates debate the deeper significance of the appearance of the ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We come across a line:

           

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

 

My heart quickens. I understand something.

 

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

 

I know what that means. But no one else will, even if I say it.

Down the stairs. Thud, thud, thud.

                                                                                    

I have a sudden inspiration, something I have not had for weeks. I must go visit my guardian angel.

           

My leaden steps take me across the Great Lawn, up the steps of the chapel, into the cool air of the sanctuary. I feel small, alone in such a magnificent space. Where is my angel? I scan the faces on the pillars. Not that one, not that one, perhaps it was that one?

 

Please help me.

 

Yet what is it exactly, that I need help with? Nothing is wrong. I attend one of the most prestigious prep schools in America, my family is healthy, I have not experienced any traumas in the past year: My life is blessed. The angel is just a carving in the wood. I have no reason to be here.

 

I get up to leave.

 

Sleep does not come easily, and when it does eventually come, I leave it with utmost regret. O, that this too solid flesh would melt.

 

What would be the easiest way to go? Just in theory. Knives are messy. Bathtub? They say the moment before you drown is euphoria. Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven. Rope is easy to come by, but where would I be able to do that? It would hurt. Pills? Where could I get pills that I most certainly would need a prescription for?

 

The coherent, intelligent thoughts come bursting forth from a void of silence. Losing consciousness, relinquishing the soul to darkness, is relief. Because when I wake, I must run through the list again. Knives, bathtub, oven, rope, pills. Knives, bathtub, oven, rope, pills. Knives, bathtub, oven….

 

You are selfish. You are weak. You are worthless, and you are only pretending you are worthy of anything you have been given.

 

I laugh. The choked sound escapes my lips, unwarranted, and feels harsh and unfamiliar. I had not smiled in weeks.

 

“Are you okay?” A friend corners me after orchestra rehearsal in the pews of the chapel. “I’m fine,” I say, forcing the corners of my mouth up. I am not sure if what appears is a smile or a grimace.

 

            Thud, thud thud.

            To be or not to be, that is the question:

            Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

            The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

            Or to take up arms against a sea of troubles,

            And by opposing end them?

​Is it nobler to suffer? Or to end it?

 

No. Maybe that doesn’t make sense. I don’t need this. There is nothing wrong with me.

 

The next morning, after my English class, I walk towards Graham House. Thud, thud, thud.

 

When I reach the front walkway, I look around. Has anyone seen me? The sidewalk is deserted. Taking a deep breath, I pull open the heavy wooden door and step inside.

january intimacy and lake - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"january intimacy and lake"

Nick Kemp

Voice of Conner Singh VanderBeek

 

the inland sea sucks back 

its frozen steam from the shore 

lapping the wet-pimpled rim of frost 

like an alpine mammal, like me. 

 

in the middle age of the month 

again, making skin ashamed to be skin, 

today's weather harbors chilled 

sweat and raw paleness under garments -- 

 

these are luminous symptoms. and yet, 

despite the electric fuzz of the immortal coil, 

the beautiful sagging of sleeping trees, 

my hoarde of locusts now evergreen 

and my tempests deciduous, 

I still dream of shipwreck in a cold ocean.

Not a compelling explanation - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"Not a compelling explanation"

David Alejandro Hernandez

Preface by Conner Singh VanderBeek

Voice of the poet

***

Just as Hermann Broch explores the closing hours of Virgil’s life, David Alejandro Hernandez contemplates the point of life in an era that favors the dead poet. The departure, though, is in how Hernandez fixates on the mundane. There is no epochal shift in question, rather a set of simple circumstances: an undersized apartment, a drought back home in the valley, the hope that someone else may understand the weight of this occasionally crippling anxiety. As Broch writes, “this destiny had pushed him out from the community into the nakedest, direst, most savage loneliness of the human crowd” – a loneliness bred from the human condition being reduced to work, work, die, with little to no room for creativity. And so we embody and enact a better-adjusted façade – a game face, as it were – that leaves little left to do in this world but commiserate.

 

***

 

Were a living motive a cold document

That we wanted to have, we could have had it better embalmed.

Little else to indicate than this short stint we’ll have in our

Kitchenette—at some previous juncture a closet.

 

Night left us and wells didn’t all dry up but

Didn’t you get the sensation? Somewhere

Out there is a tenth of an entity—name it or risk it

Getting emptied. You’ve seen this happen,

 

Whether suffered or perfected on you. For the warmth

Of a fellow unnamed plight. The simple cascades

That precede it. They task a movement of

Us as of a rover: fleeing, seeking, seeking, fleeing.

 

“Lodger in his own life” (Broch). Entities have driven you this way

And that. The farthest thing from threat is the wooden

Of performances, how they’re talked about. Poor omen.

Any previous winter and I might have more fixedly played.

Transmission A - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"Transmission A"

Nick Kemp

Voices of Conner Singh VanderBeek and Elisabeth Lusche

 

orbit elliptic

an endless dash-lined panic of ovals

ringing a dark                dense middle

 

rats and kids

follow me out of town…

 

crimson children, are we out of time?

crimson children, are we out of time?

I cross in a curved line, airborne,

in contrary motion to the sun,

 

miles from the plain below, thorny

with dwellings and radio spires,

and am strung out like catgut,

ringing softly, a faded harmonic.

 

the streetlights are webbed in bright claustrophobia.

fog nearsights the whole midwest and the earth

and people below are vanishingly pale –

to them, I must seem some distant apparition.

 

I move amongst crises alone

like a frog amongst lilypads, somehow

suspended over a deep sphere of nothing-in-particular,

mute water striders my only company.

 

but now, from below, old strains of a lullaby, saccharine

and gruff. they rise around in a frenzy and pass

opaque as they came, bound for the surface

like a terrible cascade of bubbles.

 

…orbit elliptic

                in panic

 

the poem proper begins

tomorrow, visit again later

 
 
 
 
 
Overnight - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"Overnight"

David Alejandro Hernandez

Voice of the poet

 

Next door is being haunted by cat eyes.

 

I’m famous for not giving examples.

But I had wanted to take up a routine

 

Exercise that would involve moving limbs

Entire, instead of in increments or as perceived

 

Only thru a timelapse. In the few movements

Of sleeves and shoelaces, spreadsheets, so on.

 

The vitals are holed up in a torso

Of aftereffects—and there they are. There

 

Are stories of success for us to still

Diligently tabulate. We exit,

 

As we have, a plague that you’ll agree

Speaks like all it answers:

 

Stale oil from steady snowfall.

Why there is fear in the land.

 

Simple. My mom and dad

Repaint her living room,

 

Like magic, spiders become invisible—

As invisible as overnight

 

Does for most, for most of its span.

Unless in a flight. We leave

 

An airspace for another one and promptly

Get shelled. Or is it husked? Belongings and backups

 

Take a tumble. Between plain seeking and doing, 

You are allowed one assembling, no do-over.

 

A kilo is one thousand grams across

Two lax syllables. You happen on one

 

Of many slumps, where I’m on a futon

Not mine, but one at least inside a room.

 

I’m misinterpreting your grimaces.

originally published in Omniverse; used with author permission

It never happened - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"It never happened"

Conner Singh VanderBeek

Voice of the author

For some reason, when I write about you, I have to pretend like I’m writing to you. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel right. It must be because of how exchanging letters was our thing, how our care for each other was measured in hand cramps and ink smudges on our pinkies. I don’t think you exist in my mind otherwise.

When I write to you, I can get away with referencing things instead of delving into full anecdotes; you were, after all, there. That’s easier for me, since I don’t remember most of our relationship. What’s there is in still frames and time lapses, like fast forwarding through a show to get the gist of what’s going on, but going slightly too fast to actually comprehend anything. You may read this and think it unfortunate that most of “us” is locked away – I do too, sometimes, until I remember something. I’ll be going through my day normally, then an image will pop up in my mind of me starting to falter and you pushing me down – metaphorically, mostly. The vast majority of the time, though, your words were your weapon.

But then, I remember how you went to great lengths to protect the integrity of our image, even to ourselves. There was that time you told me that I deserved every self-destructive thought that washed over me, then after you made sure I read that in front of you, you deleted the message so you could try to make me forget. We got into a rhythm like that, where you would tear me down then pick me back up, and I became dependent on that cycle.

Again though, the details elude me. I know where these events happened, but I can’t tell you the specifics: dates, conversations, weather. I don’t remember what month it was, who was home at the time, what the original argument was even about. I can’t go any deeper than these brief glimpses, whether by some defense mechanism my mind throws up or out of fear that I’ll open something that will prove too difficult to lock back up.

But then something more vivid floats to the surface, and I stamp it down – just like you would have, just like you taught me to.

There is an irony to all of this: despite you being the root of so much of my anxiety even years later, I still protect your image. Nothing I have written here gives away your identity; even my anecdotes of you are generalized enough that they aren’t identifiable as you. No one reading this knows your name, your hair color, your religion, anything. And yet, I am defending you, lying for you, just like you made me do back then.

How deeply do you have to hide something before you can claim it never happened?

“Skinless”

Lynn Hong

Voice of the author

 

This is the fourth night this week Sah has clawed into my back. What I had thought was a warm shower was apparently scalding, so she wanted to return the favor. My pillows are stained with fresh blood and old pus. I take my fourth shower of the night, and lull my sister to sleep.

***

Some sisters share their blood; Sah and I share our spine. She lives back-to-back with me, dangling off my back vertebrae, with organs of her own and stunted legs. We were born conjoined, our skulls so close that I could almost overhear her thoughts. When I walk, she kicks at my tailbone with the stubs of her thighs. She wants to be somewhere else.

***

The hospital glows in the distance from my boyfriend’s rooftop. Tae lights a bowl and passes it to me. I smoke in sips and drink the night; its liquid soothes my lungs. Sah buries her head in the nape of my neck, shivering from the scathing Chicago wind. I’m surprised that she’s put

up with the cold this long.

“What bugs you more: feeling itchy or feeling exhausted?” Tae asks.

“The latter. I’m tired of bleeding in the shower. I’m tired of taking those showers at 4am. I’m tired of explaining why I can’t eat this thing, or why I can’t kiss sometimes, or what makes me so itchy all the fucking time.”

I want to tell him: I am scared my illnesses will accumulate, not ameliorate; that you will resent me when you have to take care of me, as I do of Sah. But I don’t tell him. I don’t want him to hate me already.

Tae blows out the cashed bowl.

“I feel trapped.” I whisper.

Sah presses her fingers into a raw scab. I wince.

“But this is the only body you have.”

“I still can’t keep splitting my life between two people.”

Tae doesn’t respond. Sah gnaws at the wound, delving into the cut with her searing tongue.

“I need to go to the bathroom.” I say.

***

My parents never wanted us living conjoined. My mother knew she was having Siamese twins from her ultrasound sessions. We were her first children, maybe her last—so she wanted to take the risk of separating us after birth. But Sah came out underdeveloped from the C-section, and the surgeons refused to operate on us. Though our vital organs weren’t shared, they deemed it risky since we shared the vertebrae. When we turned one, they tried again. After 15-hours, the doctors gave up fearing post-surgery complications: blood-clotting, anesthesia overdose, death.

Having grown up with Sah, I’ve felt separation is logical but improbable. In fact, the more my parents tried, the more I grew frustrated. Sah and I have developed a rhythm to our lives. She is an individual with wants and needs, confined to my body. So we compromise—she prefers cotton and hates wool, hence I avoid sweaters. I love Thai and Indian food, but the spices and sugar makes Sah nauseous, so it’s a rare treat. It’s the worse when it comes to sleeping. Sah is a night owl who wants to roam the dark, but I want to venture in the sun.

***

I kneel on the floor and ransack the bathroom corners. I need to put her to sleep. I can’t deal with her anymore.

Sah hurls the trinkets from my purse, whacking them against the door. She doesn’t want me to find the Valium. She pulls my hair as if I were an animal, halting my reaches and steering me into cabinet doors. I crash against the floors and the walls like a wild bull.

“You alright?” Tae shouts in the distance.

“I’m fine, just gimme a second!”

No Valium. I must have left it home. I contort my body, trying to rid of her reach. In the corner of my eye: a bottle of Lunesta. I unscrew and shove the pills into Sah’s mouth. Sah spits blue bullets. I cram my hand between Sah’s teeth to push them down her throat.

A gag, a hurl, and then vomit over my hands.

“You don’t sound alright, I’m coming in.”

“No, I need to be alone!”

I want to leave this body. No, I want Sah to leave this body. I don’t care if I’ll be stuck in a wheel chair. I slam Sah against the tiled walls, Lunge her into the metal doorknob, crash her into the toilet bowl.

The vertebra intertwining us cracks. Sah screeches and claws into my hips. I lurch forward as Sah swoops her hands backwards and tears into my groin.

My knees crash into the tiled floor. The pain shoots through my nerves. It cloaks my head in a mantra: I want to die, I want to die, I want to die. I am tired of jolting awake. I am afraid of being unloved. I can’t stomach white rice and steamed veggies, no sugar or spice. I want a cure, I want pills to die.

***

“You’re wasting your money and time,” The doctor said. “I suggest you find coping strategies, rather than surgery.”

So we split our lives in 70/30—I get the bigger slice, because I have the feet. In return, I take care of Sah. She is my only skin.

Skinless - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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Featureless half - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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"Featureless half"

David Alejandro Hernandez

Preface by Conner Singh VanderBeek

Voice of the poet

***

Perhaps the most salient feature of Hernandez’s writing is his deployment of enjambment as a vehicle for wordplay. Where one line ends, logically, the next begins, though the beginning of the line is quite often strong enough to declare itself an independent thought. The second stanza balances that dynamic; each line opens with an idea that could stand on its own, but each meanders into territory that requires it break with itself. And in that break comes the meaning of the poem: within the recurring motif of marriage in Hernandez’s poetry, the fear that he is the weaker half in the equation. With companionship comes a sense of home; with home comes a smoothing of life’s more jagged edges. But smoothness also bodes erasure: the carving of the featureless half.

 ***

 

On mouthing I call for shapes, though they will slip past

Into a phrase. Clearly I can notice things, the suns said

Look at me and look away. I sleep a pulsing sort of sleep in a featureless hectare,

Because there is the one, to look for a move toward home.

 

Circles that are softer when wedded, while their other half is

Shape, distinct from the slaving for it, to its end. When it comes

Out. It is a way of mouthing, a happiness. To carve a being

One finds a rock, one gets tired, but one does not get tired

 

Aside from the half that goes its way to wandering,

As a stick or smoothed rock would. We know time is the one

The old sleep fixed in my mind. And time is attached to it,

To be in them, but I can’t swim.

 

I will slip, as I slip when I call the old

My notice. A smoothed pulsing sun, featureless

Thing through which the fixed move. Partnering off and wandering in

As its swimming partner. A phrase takes up a hectare,

 

Is attached to it.) It is all a common, decent way

And the sun fills it up. Sticks its landing. Carving can fix

Slaving. (But a half is not a shape unless it comes from a shape,

But the halves might be out of sorts. Happiness has its own

 

Place home. I was told to ward from

Things, as well as damage, as cleaving can make two halves

Claim, but I am headed toward getting tired. In my mind the words

It is is clear. One gets attached. One is placed.

 
 
Time travel - Conner Singh VanderBeek
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“Time travel” (2013)

Conner Singh VanderBeek

Voice of the author

 

Memory does not permit for time to be linear. Memory prefers verticality, for July to not only be this July, but July in years past. Two years ago yesterday I was picking peaches from my grandfather’s orchard. One year ago tomorrow, my mom and I brought an absurdly large shipment of fresh fruit home from the khet, and by my photographic accounts we had 8 boxes of peaches, pluots and pears. Today, my mom returned from the farm with a full shipment of fresh peaches, from which I am sadly too far to devour. It is in this manner that July shall always be July, that June 21st will always stand as the day on which I served as a witness to the marriage of one of my absolute best friends. Every June 21st will be that day.

 

Memory prefers verticality, and it forces the events from the past to pile up onto the current. Time is not linear. Time is expressed as vertical by the On this day... column of every newspaper, and on the corresponding section on the front page of Wikipedia.

 

The problem is, time can only move forward. Memory can force us to recall all the times we were hurt or shut out, but experience crawls forward, trying to construct the smoothest possible narrative for our immediate lives. It’s when the doctor, while looking up our medical history, asks us our immediate symptoms in order to construct a neat storybook version of our health. It’s the mood log that jumps up and down and occasionally levels out without pausing to tell you why that particular day – that particular calendar date – proved more difficult than the rest. Memory, however, doesn’t give the opportunity to read the On this day... column. It strikes when least expected, causing a picture to be more than an image, but a moment in time. Causing that moment in time to be all of July. Or an entire summer. And suddenly the bumps that were smoothed over in the never-ending crawl forward spike up and jut out, and the memory becomes a weapon against the present. What looked smooth at first is no longer. That July 4th last year spent inside because of an argument over Skype becomes a blot on every iteration of that day, past and future. That subsequent September not fully remembered because of the thoughts that emerged for the first time becomes a terrifying precipice in which future memories may fall. Oddly enough, it’s the moments that were swept under the rug at the time that become the most tenacious, the most intimidating. The picture stares back, reaching in and painfully tearing out the memories that surround it. The memories that taint the image. And that picture, or card, or memento, or letter, mounted on the wall for the duration of that lease, kept on the printer before it was packed up, kept in a journal for safe-keeping, doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. Time collapses around that object, and the life it lived is trapped inside, lurking between the letters and borders, or inside the frame, tucked away so that its secrets are safe from all but one. The lamp knocked down while no one else was around, though it was not in any way damaged, is better discarded, as its ability to project light became clouded by the shadows it started to project. And so inanimate objects, as living reminders the past, must have new life breathed into them, so that they can be released from the burden of the life they lived.

 

***

Though I stand on solid ground, my memory tries to shake the earth beneath me. Though this summer has been the best in recent memory, it too often has to fight recent memory. It has to fight the past year, during which no place was stable. It has to face the fact that my hands were steadier a year ago. I have to face the self that was struck down, that lashed out, that yelled louder and cried harder, that I fear. I choose, however, to move forward, because forward is a new space, new people, and new memories that will soften the jagged edges that try to stab their way toward the present. I choose to move forward, because wounds heal and scars fade. In the meantime, memory eventually calms down and allows for the collapsed down version of each day to be represented by its best version. July 4th straddles between my next door neighbor’s pool parties, during which the unincorporated island of Salida becomes a war zone of illegal fireworks, between the sunset caught from the roof of the Carlson Building, between the visual spectacular that broke out through the rain and the chanting of Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” beneath the scaffolded Washington Monument some 12 years ago. September is not the September lost, but peaches and the first cool breeze to blow through the valley, signaling the end of summer and the return to the busyness of fall. And then, slowly, deliberately, time moves forward, letting in new experiences, allowing the past to heal. Eventually.