Homage to the Liminal Spaces
By Elaine Lai, PhD Candidate
I learned long ago that chasing after happiness was a delusion. Not that I have anything against the concept of “happiness.” But the way that I had been conditioned to seek happiness through pleasure, through affirmation from others, and even through my very desire to become a “somebody” in this world never actually led me to any true, satiated sense of well-being.
Rather, this constant chase after a predefined notion of happiness led me to feel increasingly alienated from my authentic self, from accessing a kind of ‘okness’ that is not dependent upon the external world. Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that love and support from others isn’t necessary, or that social change isn’t necessary—far from it! If certain exclusionary, racist laws were never upturned, I, along with so many others, would never be here at Stanford in the first place. And if I did not have love and support from others, I would not be here today period.
But the question remains: if not happiness, then what can I take refuge in as I move through this confusing life, and especially as I come to terms with the fact that I may never live to see the kind of radical healing and transformation in the world that my heart yearns for? How do I resource myself for the long haul, so that I can continue to sow the seeds for an alternative future even beyond my lifetime?...
I have come to realize that I absolutely need joy.
This hasn’t been an easy lesson for me. Only when the world crumbles beneath my feet and I am submerged into a liminal space do I really start to search for joy, as a means of survival, and of thriving, even if invisibly so. So, in a way, I have to give thanks to the liminal spaces for keeping me on my toes, never allowing me to get too comfortable with the status quo. And I have to acknowledge that in my own journey through liminal spaces, joy coexists with and is even inspired by suffering; it arises from touching into that which hurts the most, and recognizing that I am not and have never been alone.
This past winter break, when COVID levels were reaching record highs in the U.S. and media reports on hate crimes against Asian Americans were starting to flood in with increasing frequency, I had one such glimpse into this joy. I was in the midst of a silent home retreat, trying to process the collective and individual trauma from this past year, and to feel the things that I didn’t have “time” to feel with the busy schedule that is Stanford. I had turned off all news reports, shut off my emails, and committed myself to a daily regimen of chanting, meditation and contemplation of Buddhist scriptures that I love. Several days into my retreat, on Christmas day, I took a walk along the Ohlone Greenway path under the Bart, a favorite path of mine not just for its greenery and squirrels but because the name “Ohlone Greenway” reminds me to pay homage to the caretakers of this land upon which I reside, land which has given me so much life.
No one else was out walking that day except for another man in front of me. I started to feel uneasy as I neared him though, because he stared directly at me with unwavering, intense eyes—a kind of stare that I have learned over time, is an intimidation tactic. Violation of space always starts with the eyes, you see.
In response, I quickly moved out of the way to create a greater distance between myself and the man until he disappeared from view. However, when I turned to walk back home along the same path, I noticed this man again, sitting on a bench, almost as if he was waiting for me. My skin prickled with warning signs of danger so I crossed the street immediately, prayer beads still in my left hand, in mid-chant. Suddenly the man jumped up from the bench as if to lunge at me. He shouted, “You fucking whore!” so loudly that I thought perhaps folks in the houses nearby could hear. I did not dare look up because I knew that even looking at this man would set him off further. I understood that to be physically safe, I had to keep quiet and to keep walking, but not too fast, otherwise he might chase me.
I felt him staring at me still as I turned a corner to the next street. I suddenly noticed that throughout this disruption, I had never stopped my chanting, which surprised me a little. Was this a sign that my Buddhist training had paid off? Or a sign that I was so immune to random insults that I wasn’t even phased by it anymore? Instead of going straight home, I walked to a small wooded area and climbed my favorite tree. I lay on one of its branches for a little while in silence and waited for the negative energy of that encounter to dissolve from my body. As I lay there, I thought about the countless times I had been called hateful names by various people, usually (but not always) men. Men I knew. Men I didn’t know. Boys, teenagers, adult men, old men. Men of every race, ethnicity, and class background. I thought about how I had assumed that past my 20s, these incidents might stop. But here I was, past my 20s, and they didn’t stop. I thought about the recent attacks against Asian Americans twice my age and over, and suddenly had a keen understanding that violence would never stop, no matter what age I or others reached.
Laying there on that tree, I started to contemplate the spiritual path I had taken refuge in as well: Buddhism. Why was the major lore of Buddhism centered around the enlightenment of Shakyamuni Buddha—a man born into extreme privilege? Why were the most famous stories of practitioners throughout India and Tibet almost always about men? Where were the stories of people like me, my mother, or grandmother? There is a particular flavor of sadness that arises upon the realization that the world one inhabits is deeply flawed and violent, but that disappointment pales in comparison to the grief that arises upon the realization that the refuge one has taken is flawed in the very same ways.
In the depth of my sadness during those recollections on that tree branch, something unexpected happened. I started to imagine what a story of enlightenment in female form would look like, through a character named Blue Lotus. Something deep in me was stirred, awakened by this possibility. Images, words, scenes, and feelings started to bubble up one after another, taking various permutations, winding in all directions. Was Blue Lotus like Shakyamuni Buddha? I wondered. No, she was not, I decided. Unlike Shakyamuni Buddha, she did not come from a life of privilege; she was from the fringes, someone who had suffered deep injustices, someone who could easily disappear between the pages of recorded history. That was the story I wanted to uncover.
As I imagined Blue Lotus’s story, I started to connect to the stories of all those unnamed women in the past who have striven to find freedom in environments that didn’t have the capacity to imagine their freedom. I sought out stories of women who had experienced intergenerational abuse and wanted to break these cycles. I remembered my own stories and my own deep desire to be free in a world that is endlessly violent. And in the process, I found myself mourning for the stories that have been systematically erased from our histories, yet also rejoicing in the resilience of all those before me who have thrived in spite of this erasure. I may not know all of them by name, but I know they are there. I realized too, that they have always been here, waiting for me to notice. I touched into a kind of joy that no one can take away from me—the freedom to imagine, to bring alternative stories into being.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Blue Lotus for the rest of my retreat. I needed her story to take shape in the world. Her visibility on the page was my glimmer of hope for a different future and a different past. And so, I kindly gave myself permission to nurture the story, to let it flow through me, into language, and onto the page. A labor of love and creativity that persists to this very day.
It may sound strange to say, but I am grateful to the man who called me a whore on Christmas day, who catalyzed the deeper contemplations that happened thereafter. I am also grateful to those in the past who have hurt me deeply with their words or actions. For without touching into this form of suffering that is endemic to the world we cohabit, I never would have been shaken out of the slumber of complacency. In the liminal space of suffering, I am forced to find joy, to find out what I am truly made out of—for if I don’t like the stories that others tell about me, I’ve got to create another story, don’t I? And create another story is exactly what I did.
To mourn does not mean that we do not have joy. For me, this past year of mourning is precisely what has allowed for that unadulterated joy to begin flowing through me and take some form of expression, even if that expression is as subtle as a reframing in my own mind, a noticing or remembering of something that was always there to begin with.
And so, I pay homage to these uncomfortable liminal spaces that have stirred me awake. I venture to say that this past year has been a kind of liminal space for many of us, some more so than others. And as I continue to hear the media’s attack on COVID with war-like language, I wonder: what are we really fighting? What is the virus behind the virus? And what is it here to teach us? Rather than run away from that which scares us, that which we designate as the enemy, I have started to fall into the liminal spaces with more trust (mixed with a good dose of healthy boundaries and face masks of course). I trust because something remarkable happens when we are pushed to the edge. Faced with the possibility of rock bottom, we are forced to let go of previous fictions. We tap into our own creative agency, and begin to redefine life on our own terms. Joy is an intentional choice. It is a continual process, a labor of love that never ends.
Crocodile Eggs and Cricket Curry
By: JJ Kapur ’22
“Are you sure you don’t want to join us for dinner? Tonight we are eating crocodile eggs.” Papa would say this with a straight face, as if crocodile eggs were a staple at our home, along with cricket curry and kangaroo kebabs. When the neighborhood kids heard this, they’d say everything from “Eeeeew! That’s gross!” to “Really? Can I try them?!” I’d just smile.
None of these bizarre foods were on the menu for dinner. But when Papa and I were playing, everything was possible.
After coming home from school, I’d wait patiently for Papa to get home from work. The moment the garage door opened and our blue Pontiac Montana pulled into the driveway, I’d spring outside and give Papa our secret salute. When Papa opened the car door, I’d hear the radio slowly die. As Robert Siegal’s voice from NPR’s “All Things Considered” faded away, I knew that work time (what I thought of as “All Things Boring”) was over.
Now, it was time for fun.
While Papa changed out of his work clothes and into his relaxed clothes (black short-shorts and a white singlet), he’d ask me about everything I learned about in school that day. I’d tell him that there are big volcanoes in Indonesia, that Ms. Martin gave me a checkmark for talking too much again, and that I hated writing in cursive. Papa would smile, quiz me on the capital of Indonesia (It’s Jarkata, Papa, easy!) and come up with a nickname for my dreaded homeroom teacher: “Checkmark Martin.” In addition to working his day job in IT, Papa taught ACT and SAT prep classes. More than anything, Papa loved teaching. And for Papa, teaching was all about play. He was convinced that if a teacher wasn’t fun, students would learn absolutely nothing.
After enjoying a cup of tea together, I’d follow Papa downstairs to the basement where we’d tinker and experiment. We called our projects “Trash to Treasure.” We’d find trash from our house and turn it into something magical. I’ll never forget when Papa wrapped a leftover cardboard box with wads of copper wire, stuck a rod inside with two magnets attached, and connected the wire ends to a light bulb. When Papa began spinning the rod, the light flickered. I was shocked. I simply didn’t believe it. I thought Papa must have snuck a battery in somewhere. But I couldn’t find one anywhere. Suddenly, it hit me: PAPA WAS THE BATTERY! My eyes lit up brighter than the light bulb. His hand movement, the same movement found in windmills and dams, was creating light.
Then, Papa uttered his famous phrase: “It’s science!” his index finger pointed high in the air.
I later learned in school the fancy name behind this principle, electromagnetic induction. But Papa taught me something that my textbook couldn’t. The world is magical.
Playing with Papa was always about learning. When the two of us weren’t playing in the basement, we were out in the backyard. Soccer games halted when Papa pointed out a propeller seed twirling down from our Maple to explain how Da Vinci discovered flight, or how light shining on our Willow created concentric circles in the branches following the Fibonacci Sequence.
While Papa was really good at revealing the magic of science, he was also masterful at conjuring the magic of imagination. He always delivered when the neighborhood kids came out to play.
“Tell us about the oily man!” My friend Collin would ask.
The oily man, orang minyak in Malaysian folklore, was a crowd favorite. Papa’s eyes would get huge. He’d dart his gaze to the corner of our yard and whisper back in a thick, Indian accent, “You mean the black, greasy, slimy, little man who lives in our shed?!” All the kids would lean in a little closer and giggle uncomfortably. I’d lean back and watch the magician spin yet another one of his webs. I knew this story. I’d heard it a million times. But a proud smile would grow on my face when other kids got a little taste of Papa’s pixie dust.
It was Mummy who would bring Papa out of his imaginative trance. I’d hear from the kitchen window, “Ayo! Under aou. Khaana tyaar hogiyaa!” Translation: Dinner’s ready. Get your butts inside!”
It wasn’t until I got to Stanford that I learned what exactly made spending time with Papa so magical. In my freshman year, I took a class called “The Psychology of Stoked” which investigated the science of well-being. We learned about PERMA, an acronym, coined by Positive Psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, which summarized the major flavors of wellbeing: “P”ositive Emotion, “E”ngagement, “R”elationships, “M”eaning, and “A”ccomplishment.
Whether I was folding paper airplanes or dribbling a soccer ball past my dad, much of my childhood was bursting with the “P” in PERMA — Positive Emotion. In my case, the positivity came almost entirely from another p-word: Play.
Through middle and high school, no matter how old or busy I got, Papa and I still found time to play. But this past summer, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, something changed. I no longer saw Papa’s mischievous smile. I no longer heard Papa laughing on the phone while talking to his family overseas. I no longer found Papa in the kitchen, dressed like a mad scientist, experimenting with a new recipe he’d remembered from childhood.
In June, Papa was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. By October, I no longer recognized my father. He lost so much weight. His face looked weighed down by a world of worries. He spent entire days laying in bed. Even going outside to check the mail became an impossible task.
Classic symptoms of Major Depression include having severe and persistent low mood, profound sadness, or a sense of despair. But when I think about Major Depression, I don’t think of the textbook definition. I think of lost capacity to play.
All the roles in my family I once thought were set in stone began to shift. My mother went from being the quiet one who always listened to Papa and me at the dinner table to the talkative one. And me? I went from cared-for to care-taker. Suddenly, I was the one calling the insurance company to figure out how much Papa’s treatments cost. I was the one pulling into the driveway to see my father waiting for me at the door. I was the one giving my father a warm hug and tucking him in before going to sleep.
At first, just like the day I saw the lightbulb flicker to life in the basement, I couldn’t believe what was happening. But this time, it was the process in reverse. Had some light switch turned off in Papa’s brain, short-circuiting his ability to play?
It’s a strange thing to grieve someone who’s still alive. But I wasn’t grieving the loss of my father—I was grieving the loss of my playmate. For my entire life up until that point, my father had created the conditions for play. But in my current relationship with Papa, play was no longer on the menu. The idea that Papa could lose his pixie dust, and that I couldn’t bring it back, was bitter medicine to swallow.
Last month, exhausted from taking online college classes for over a year and caring for my depressed dad, I decided it was time for me to move away from home for awhile to live with some friends. A nice change of pace, I thought. Two days before leaving Iowa, I stopped packing my suitcase. As much as I wanted to believe Papa would get better on his own, it occurred to me that the repercussions of his depression were concrete, evident, and fast-coming.
My father needed me. For my entire life, he held onto the container of pixie dust. I couldn’t just pack up my bags and leave him and my mother alone. My brain didn’t have to make the decision to stay home; my body already knew what I had to do. My originally planned three-month stay became a two-week vacation.
Dr. Selligman found that, at different stages of our lives, we lean on different ingredients of wellbeing. Being surrounded by nature and with my dearest friends helped recharge my battery and put into perspective how much my dad means to me. While my relationship with Papa may not be based on the same foundation of Positive Emotion and Play that it once was, now, there’s a lot of R and M from the PERMA acronym: relationship and meaning. It brings me a renewed purpose to take care of someone who has always taken care of me.
When I returned home to Iowa, the medicine that was once too bitter for me to swallow had become a little sweeter.
Now, I feel empowered to bring out the pixie dust within myself and others. My mom and I have developed a playful relationship. When she comes home from work, the first question I ask her in a funny voice is: “What’s weeeirrrd with you?”
I’ve also found a new playmate in my girlfriend, Jaiden. We’ve formed little inside jokes, the kind that blossom so naturally in romantic relationships.
This past year, I’ve had to come to terms with what it means to cross the threshold from childhood to adulthood. But being grown up doesn’t mean I have to give up all the things that made “Lil’ JJ” squeal with glee. In a time when I’ve often felt I’ve run out of magic, I have come to realize that Papa is not the only keeper of pixie dust—I have it in my back pocket too. And until he gets his back, you’ll find me in the kitchen, cooking up crocodile eggs and cricket curry for anyone who’s hungry.
Threaded Through Us
By: Adesuwa Agbonile ’21
My name - Adesuwa Darape Agbonile - was given to me with a lot of intention. Adesuwa is Edo, which is the Nigerian tribe my father is from. Darape is Yoruba, my mother’s tribe. From the very moment I was born, my parents were wrapping me up in Nigerian-ness. And when I was growing up, my parents were singularly focused on making it clear to me and my little brother that we were a Nigerian family. They would say those exact words, over and over: You are Nigerian! You are Nigerian! You are Nigerian! It was a lesson I took in with little resistance. If you asked me about my ancestry when I was in elementary school, the answer would have been on the tip of my tongue: I am Nigerian.
But I wouldn’t have been able to answer any follow up questions. I knew I was Nigerian, but that meant very little to me. I thought about my Nigerian-ness mostly in the negative. Being Nigerian really just meant being not-American. In my house, there was an unspoken understanding that living in America was a good thing - to be American was not. To be American was to talk back to your parents. To be American was to go to sleepovers at other people’s houses, or to run after dogs on the street instead of running away, or to cough after eating something spicy. We were not American - we were Nigerian.
My parents' insistence on teaching this fact to me and my brother culminated when I was fourteen, and my parents moved our entire family back to Lagos for a year. Their objective was explicit: they wanted to show us where we came from. But their mission backfired in the most spectacular of ways. Spending time in Nigeria led me to conclude that telling people I was from Nigeria was nonsensical, and almost insulting to all the actual Nigerians in the world, people who had lived in Nigeria their entire lives. By the time I returned to America to finish high school, I became resolute in a new conviction - I was not from Nigeria, I was from a suburb of Seattle. I was from America.
This resolution buoyed me through high school for about a year. It didn’t take long before I began to poke holes in it. Like one day during my junior year of high school, when we began learning about Reaganomics in our history class, and a few of my classmates started talking about the stories their parents had told them about that time. Suddenly, I was struck by a realization: the history I was learning about in school actually, really happened to some people.
I say realization because before that moment, I had understood this concept in the abstract, but it always felt just like that: abstract. My parents didn’t live in America in the eighties. They had very few opinions about Ronald Reagan, mostly because they never lived in America during the Reagan presidency in the eighties. So learning this history felt a little like reading a book of fiction - like, sure, these things happened, but there was no way for me to personally contextualize these events. I had no one to ask about what it was like to live through those times. Me and my entire family were outside of history, at least, we were outside American history.
I became almost jealous of the other kids in my class. It felt like they were more from America than I would ever be. Knowing where you ‘come from’, knowing your ‘ancestry’ involves understanding your history - the history of your country and the history of your own family, and understanding how those two histories overlap and intersect. Knowing where you ‘come from’ means having a lineage that you can look back on.
And so that was what I started to want. I wanted to have the history of my family and of my people cleanly mapped out, like in US History textbooks. I wanted my parents to produce a family tree, an annotated guide to the history of all of the events that had to happen to result in the creation of me. Then, I could read it, study it, and situate myself in the world. I would know where I ‘came from’.
Of course, this is much easier said than done. One of the brushed-over realities of colonialism is that many colonized countries are told that their histories don’t matter. In many cases, Black people have had thier histories forcibly removed - like Black Americans whose ancestry was washed away by the transatlantic slave trade.
In school, I learned almost exclusively about European and American history. In Nigeria, my school had a British curriculum - our history classes were mostly focused on events in Europe. We never learned about the Biafran War, or the looting and burning of the Benin Kingdom. Even in college, it’s hard to find classes that teach any sort of comprehensive history about Nigeria, or anywhere in the Global South.
Learning about my own family history was hard, too, especially because I grew up an ocean away from both sets of my grandparents, and my parents weren’t particularly close with their own grandparents. But it began to seem like the most doable option - a concrete way for me to answer this question about where I am ‘from’.
So when the global pandemic began, and I found myself at home with my parents for a prolonged period for the first time since high school, I decided to sit down and interview them. I wanted to get them to help me create a history that was meant for me. Something that I could feel a part of. Something that held weight in my life, the same way learning about American history held weight in my peers’ lives. I wanted to write a history textbook that was precisely for me.
But there’s just one problem - to create a history textbook, you need information. And my parents had none. At one point as I was talking to my mom, I asked her rather frustratedly - do you know anything about our lineage? She paused, then replied - “I guess not. I just never thought about it.”
The same people who forced me to go to Nigerian parties every weekend and shipped me across the ocean to learn about my Nigerian heritage now couldn’t even supply the name of a great-grandmother, or tell me anything about our family’s involvement in the Biafran Civil War besides vaguely gesturing towards the ceiling and saying “yeah, I guess that did happen.”
I had once thought of my parents as almost maniacally committed to preserving the ancestry of my family, but now it was like they had transformed into completely different people who never wanted to bring up any of our family history ever again. I was appalled, and frustrated - how could they not know everything about their ancestors, or their country’s history? Finally, one day after weeks of pestering, my mom looked at me over the kitchen table and said - why would I have to know who my ancestors are? They’re just with me. And then rolled her eyes and continued eating her rice in silence.
This didn’t make any sense to me, because I thought about ancestry the same way I thought about archeology - your history is something that has to be dug out of some faraway ground and dusted off in order to glean new understandings about who you are. So of course my ancestors weren’t with me. How could they be with me when I was living in Seattle in 2021?
I ended up disregarding my mother’s comment and moving on entirely. I literally moved - out of my house and back to California. I give up on finding any concrete answers to my questions about ‘where I come from’, and ‘who my ancestors are’.
But even though I give up on the questions, they don’t entirely disappear. And I find myself answering them in the strangest of ways. Like, I start to realize that even though I am nowhere near my mother, I can still feel her presence. I startle easily, just like she does. When I raise my eyebrows and press my lips together and cut my eyes to the side when I’m annoyed, it’s like my face has been momentarily replaced by hers. In the same way, I can feel my father present in my morning quietness, and his voice is right underneath my voice when I ramble to my friends about whatever topic I’m interested in that week. All of these parts of me aren’t unique to me, they’re all collected from somewhere else, someone else. In all these tiny but significant ways, I am a multitude of pasts. All of my ancestors are collected inside me, with me.
Fittingly, when I came to this realization and articulated it in my journal, at first I attributed it to myself. I congratulated my big brain for coming to the understanding that actually, ancestry is not a process of excavation, but observation, that I don’t have to dig out my history, I just have to observe it in the way it manifests in my thoughts and my actions.
It was only later that I remembered my mother’s words over the kitchen table - her ancestors being just with her. This whole time, I hadn’t taught myself some new and grand lesson about ancestry. My mother was the one who had taught me - I had just finally decided to accept her wisdom.
My parents have been trying to teach me this lesson about ancestry ever since I was born, through the Nigerian parties, the chastisations about talking back, the food. They understood that ancestry isn’t necessarily about documented histories of a country or family. Ancestry is about threading yourself into those who come after you, and cradling the parts of yourself that the people before you handed down with care and respect.
I can’t draw out a family lineage, or offer up any coherent histories of country or land, but I can point to different parts of my life and tell you all the lessons I learned from my parents, who learned from their parents, who learned from their parents. My ancestry is buried inside of me. I don’t need to point to a family tree to know that that is the case.
Bodies of Genius
By: Kory Gaines ’21
December 20, 2019 Text message thread
alyssa and i are gonna buy expensive ass tickets to this alvin ailey show on the new year to celebrate the new decade and new year! want me to buy you a seat and then venmo?
Alvin Ailey? Lemme look him up
you call yourself a AAAS major???
he is the KING CONTEMPORARY AFRICAN AMERICAN DANCE
YO okay I have successfully googled and yes fool look out please!
. . .
January 1, 2020
Marc and I are crashing at a friend’s place in Staten Island for a couple days before we depart from JFK for Cape Town, South Africa for a quarter abroad. It was an exciting time for us: a new year, studying abroad, the first time Marc and I have been to the Continent as Black Americans all kicked off by a short New Year’s stay in New York.
The night before in DC, I’d gone to a New Year’s Eve function with friends. I remember how I danced that night — hard. Harder than my heavy Polo boots really allowed.
When I go to a party, I see brilliance in the dancer and the DJ. They know how to read the room and converse with the crowd. The DJ knows how to co-create the synergy necessary for a good party. The dancer knows the right moves for any given song — when to grab the party’s attention for a short stint and how to dialogue with the stranger inspired to dance with them. This ineffable dialogue between dancers and music makers is at the heart of contemporary dance. That night at the New Year’s party, I co-conspired as both dancer and DJ, a perfect prelude to what we’d witness at the Alvin Ailey show the next day.
. . .
I learned a good deal about Alvin Ailley from my short stroll through Google. Ailey was a Black American dancer, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre with a troupe of fellow Black American dancers in 1958. In the early years of the theatre, it was space for Black Americans to grow as creatives while avoiding ubiquitous discrimination. Later, in '63, the company integrated in protest of segregation and discriminatory quotas. Eventually, they became the premiere company for African American modern-contemporary dance.
Ailey was the kind of creative I could aspire to be, that many artists aspire to be. Not only had he created beautiful works of art, but he used their platform to affect the sociopolitical. Throughout generations, being an Ailey dancer has been an honor. I was pretty convinced I had to see what it was all about.
The show began with the world premiere of a piece called Ode. The set was floral with verdant leaves. Six tall and strong Black men were moving like water. They were all shirtless, shining with oil, anointed, reflecting the stage lights back at the audience as water reflects sunlight. Their pants were a beige ombre, baggy, and breathable. These Black men were free, no impediment to their movement. Their bodies moved with the precision of a body of water, a feat which required their combined force.
My favorite of the four pieces that night was called Fandango, a sensual, intense duet. The bodies of the two dancers, a man and a woman, were in contact the whole time. They would lift each other up, fall into each other softly, flipping each other every which way. They took note never to let their partner’s head fall to the ground nor into any uncomfortable crevice. I remember exclaiming, “Woo…uh…oh my god yes…wow!” I didn’t expect to see such a provocative performance, flesh commingling to create something fertile and inventive.
There’s a lot of wonder and knowledge in human touch, in the sensual. It’s something people yearn for, especially in our current moment. Fandango reflected the values I have learned from a gentle touch, a surrender and yielding to another while they physically support you. A deliberate slowness. Often, we find ourselves in a world where gentleness, vulnerability, deliberation are lost. Fandango taught and reminded the audience that we need all of those qualities. We can craft a refuge of life and knowledge, a space where everybody knows each other, where we feel okay being vulnerable, laughing loud, cutting up, debating, talking through eye contact, and hugging when we have strong bonds in a community. We create refuge together.
Watching the Alvin Ailey dancers that night, it was as though I had only known stillness up until that point, and the performance set me in motion. Emotionally, and perhaps spiritually, I was "moved." But even that doesn’t really express it. I had been sitting in my seat, but I felt like I’d been moving in unison with the dancers, even while still. I felt the oneness that the piece sought to evoke.
Ailey once told The New York Times, "I am trying to show the world that we are all human beings." In that sense, I felt deeply human. That I am human, despite the racist idea, the racist lie, perpetuated over centuries that Black people are subhuman. I know others in the theater that night had similar emotional reactions. Our humanity was the one thing that tied all the different audience members together.
That night, the dancers spoke knowledges into my body. Not quite new, more of an intensification of things I already knew about gentleness, about beauty, about freedom.
Marc had been right when he’d texted; Alvin Ailey was the king of Black American modern/contemporary dance. Ailey and the history of his dance theater exemplify genius reimagined. As brilliant as Ailey was as an individual, it was him and a group of fellow young, Black dancers who embodied genius together.
I was reminded that in Cape Town, I would soon be in a community of genius too. Most of the people in our cohort were already my dear friends. Soon, and together, we would embody genius — as students in the classroom by day, and as dancers in the city by night.
We are all human beings with bodies. And because we are humans, we need community, the collective. We are mutually constitutive: the dancer, the musician, the choreographer, the artists, the mass crowd, the students and the teacher, the citizens. I don’t see how the beauty created by dancers on stage could exist without embracing the fact that the dances are made in a community of creativity, in conversation. I find comfort knowing our bodies can communicate and speculate, imagine and intuit.
I remember the beat of my heart, the rush of my blood on both nights. I felt alive, human. I felt this way because people, groups of people, embraced and worked together at their talents.
And I have come here today to spread the good news!
Our bodies, each one, hold genius. One day soon, we will gather in body with friends and kinfolk to create genius again en masse. Until then, we embody genius through our screens. Still. Always genius on this scene.
No Ecstatic Shortcuts Allowed
By: Emma Master ’19
In times like these, we all need something to believe in. I believe in Fleabag and the Priest (dubbed Hot Priest by fans) from Season 2 of TV’s smash hit Fleabag.
The show follows a character called Fleabag as she works through grief and self-hatred. As if she’s an actor in a play, Fleabag breaks the fourth wall to comment on her own life to the audience, making fun of everything and everyone around her by eviscerating them with subversive insights and reductive insults. An ex-flame becomes “Arsehole guy,” a sleazy man on the bus becomes “Bus Rodent.” No one ever notices.
Fleabag’s constant editorializing has a purpose — it insulates her from being truly seen and potentially hurt by others until...she meets the Hot Priest at her dad’s engagement dinner, which he attends as the officiant-to-be of the wedding and as a lonely guy who's new in town. In this scene, while everyone else is caught up in their own dramas and passive aggressive insults, Fleabag turns towards the the camera with a knowing smile: “No one has asked me a question in 45 min—”
“So what do you do?”
Hot Priest disrupts Fleabag’s inner monologue mid-sentence, jolting her out of her defensive cocoon. For the rest of the show, he continues to surprise her by truly SEEING her in ways that no one else can, and by being someone she can’t reduce or predict. “A cool, sweary priest,” he throws her off and earns her respect. He can tell when she has cut herself off and escaped into her fourth wall-breaking commentary, and calls her out on it in a good-natured effort to get to know her. She comes for the intrigue and gets roped into loving and being loved. The worst!
I couldn’t get enough of their first scene together, particularly how Hot Priest’s unhinged openness infuses her whole family with a little more humanity. Usually, Fleabag is the one to throw a wrench in her family’s superficial niceties, but here he is, disrupting the flow of what’s proper with his warmth and honesty; he shakes up the system and sows little seeds of intimacy all around.
I ended up compulsively rewatching all of their scenes. What was it about this dynamic that was so spellbinding? Eventually I figured it out, at least partly. These two characters were showing me something profound: a whole new way to create intimacy.
When someone slips behind our defenses, we’re given the chance to see ourselves the way they do. And when we see that they deem us worthy of loving, sometimes we can then love ourselves...and others.
With our Star-of-Bethlehem-crossed lovers, there are no ecstatic shortcuts allowed. Because sex is off limits to these characters, they’re forced into becoming (truly) intimate, gradually. They spend quality time together at church fundraisers, talking about their faith and values, drinking canned gin and tonics, and, perhaps most importantly, joking around.
. . .
Growing up, I played lacrosse. When you’re defending, it’s illegal to run straight up to an oncoming attacker. You have to run a “banana slide” defense, rushing at your opponent from a sideways angle. As I watched the show, I realized that Fleabag and the Hot Priest approach intimacy “sideways” too — they use humor and play.
While the rules of the Catholic Church serve as a solid barrier to a romantic relationship, jokes liquify boundaries. And where boundaries become fluid, meaning does too.
I watched, riveted, as Fleabag and the Hot Priest dance playfully around the illicit nature of their deepening bond. When he refers to himself, a priest, as a father of many, she retorts that she’ll go up to three.
The show’s use of humor really struck me. This sideways intimacy. It was a bit of a revelation — to realize there are ways to grow close other than pouring your heart out, or spilling your guts.
I watched this show fairly fresh off my role as a live-in Resident Assistant at Stanford aka a Mother of Many (Freshmen). Through that experience, I had internalized a rigid imperative when it came to intimacy: MAKE THEM BOND.
On top of that, I had spent the entire summer before my senior year in a Stanford lab giving strangers those famous 36 questions to fall in love. We weren’t trying to make them fall in love, at least not specifically. Our principal goal was slightly different: MAKE STRANGERS BOND.
Ever since, that’s the way I’ve approached intimacy — MAKE THEM BOND. All caps.
Recently in my weekly Zoom meeting with friends (and with this approach in mind), I asked a question that invited people to be vulnerable, to share: “What’s a time when you exposed yourself?”
I was taken aback — instead of jumping at a chance to bond and be seen and healed and all other things good, right, fair, and just, my friends swerved and clammed up. In the lacrosse world, I had beelined for the attacker with my stick in their face! I’d committed a foul: a party foul of the soul.
Turns out, when it feels too intentional and forced, being seen can be unpalatable, even scary.
Thanks to the Hot Priest and Fleabag, my all caps intimacy imperative softened. You can get close to people in many ways, with banana slide humor for one. Or just by living together.
. . .
The year preceding the pandemic lockdown was my first year out of college. Aka the year when passing off your problems to the “adultier adults” starts feeling a little less feasible.
Armed with nothing but our nascent credit scores and part-time gigs, five other recent Stanford grads and I pooled our meager resources, appealed to the merciless Palo Alto rent gods, and piled into one teeny tiny, astronomically expensive three-bedroom apartment, lofting beds atop floor mattresses for “space.”
We scammed ourselves some furniture, decent kitchenware, and a furry Target Halloween *snack guardian* spider wrapped in a pride flag cape. We christened ourselves the Yingling House of Schemes, based on our knowledgeable landlady and a cooperative ploy to win the heart of a cute doctor one of us was crushing on.
I, an introvert who likes her space, barely knew most of these people. And with a single common area and kitchen, we were always on top of eachother. If two people wanted to cook at the same time in our narrow hall of a kitchen, they had to bump and squeeze their way through it, crossing pans and fumes. We were a hub of 20s energy: chaos, feelings, affection, mason jars experiments containing fermenting food or homemade jam (and botulism?), music: live and otherwise, tea: literal and emotional, grinding: study and dance.
Rolled together in a ceaselessly churning, breathing, vibing mass, we ended up getting really, well, close.
Coming home everyday was truly coming home. A sigh of relief, weight lifted off, and enveloping warmth all at once. We each had our own quirks and breakdowns, and that was okay. It was a constant party, in the best way — literally, someone was up at every hour of the day. I was having the time of my alleged introvert life.
Once Covid hit, the Yingling House of Schemes splintered off across the country after only three months together. Over minty teas at Philz, we reminisced and wondered how a group of acquaintances had become such a family in such a short time.
We’d grown so close, but in an understated way. There was this sense that we could be comfortable with each other, fully ourselves and accepted. In retrospect, this camaraderie helped us thrive, even while we joked (and truly felt) that our lives were our own personal trash fires.
The intimacy I’d had before was explosive, obsessive, and all at once — achieved through 3 am heart-to-hearts and grand emotional gestures. But at the Yingling House of Schemes, instead of euphoric highs and total merging, there was a housemate quote wall. Everyone had a schtick. InHae getting us all hooked on the astrology app The Pattern. Nat sharing her luxurious kimbap with me when I was too tired from work to eat anything but eggs eggs eggs, instant oatmeal, bananas, granola bars, and...eggs. Drifting-off-to-sleep convos between the occupants of the floor mattress and lofted bed frame, airing worries about a new job app or other soft 20s angst. Our dance party in the dark when we tried out our new bootylicious moves and danced like nobody was watching. Actually, everyone was watching, but for some reason it was okay, even for me, who can’t dance in front of anyone without an embarrassingly high Blood Alcohol Concentration.
My time at the Yinling House of Schemes showed me yet another way intimacy can arise — as a pleasant byproduct of coexisting, built up gradually in random contexts and via various activities, resulting from all sorts of interactions. There are many roads to reach the healing waters of loving and seeing / being loved and seen.
. . .
When I was six years old, we finally switched from the chalky Flintstone vitamins to the luscious Costco mega pack Gummy Bear vitamins. I was thrilled, until, one morning, someone made me laugh while I was chewing one and the gummy vitamin went up my nose. I spent the next hour in painful-because-it-is-painful-and-also-painful-because-it-is dumb agony, sneezing out chunk by half-chewed, cherry red chunk as the vitamin worked its way up, through, and out my nasal cavity. This process on loop is what my post-college relationship felt like.
Most of us were going through our own version of this purgatorial dynamic and supporting each other through it. We held space for each other’s confused venting and watched each other fall into the same traps, struggling to break the surface before getting pulled under by the next intoxicating, pummeling wave, trying to hold onto something that wasn’t there.
We’d exchange cycling choruses of “Okay, take care of yourself!” with I’m scared for you undertones against the backdrop of I’m watching a trainwreck happen and need to step back and let it run its course.
I became used to the half-smile / half-grimaces we’d give, then receive ourselves, as we staggered desperately and wretchedly out the door in the middle of the night to go talk For The Last Time, returning guilty, high, and bleary-eyed the next morning. Hallmarks of the shittiest merry-go-round ever. 20s!
One night after the latest fight, head bobbing above the swell, I decided I was done. It was time to block my ex. For Good.
Shaken and numb, I informed my housemates. They hugged me and ushered me into their room, which we’d dubbed “Windhover'' during some party after the on-campus meditation center, as a place people could chill and take a break from the music and dancing.
I couldn’t feel much other than numbness, but there was a tinge of premature guilt, as if I had already failed and gone back again, like I knew I probably would. I had so many times before.
I curled up in a ball, and everyone gravitated towards me. Ben held my hand, Nat wrapped her arm around me, and InHae lovingly built me up, mama bear-style, the harshly protective tone of her words washing over me. A roasty lullaby. Carlos faced me, his arms hugging his knees while Garrick lingered in the doorway, cradling his soup and watching with concern. Some talked while others just sat in silence, holding me and staying still, anchors for my internal distress. We huddled close, humming like a charging battery. We stayed quiet like that for a long time. Understated. Soft and strong.
I’m convinced that their support is what gave me the resolve to leave that endless emotional spin cycle. Like Fleabag, healed from loving and being loved by the Hot Priest, I was able to start seeing myself as my housemates saw me, to borrow their belief in me and, based on that, act.
It wasn’t floodgate, moviestar, lightning bolt experiences that brought us to that quiet, sacred moment together on the floor. It was an everyday acceptance and care that grew slowly into a strong base. Around my housemates, I felt an inner stillness, and from that reservoir, I was able to draw so much strength.
In the past, I’d been drawn to that Taylor Swift-ian love — roller coaster rides and screaming in the rain. After all, the Twilight series was the bread and butter of my adolescence.
This was something new.
By: Adesuwa Agbonile ’21
In the spring, I began having a recurring dream. It would start with me yelling, furiously, a faceless stranger, someone who wished me some kind of vague harm. Then, slowly, my throat would close up, and my vision would blur. I wouldn’t be able to speak; all the words I wanted to say would be at the top of my throat, grappling for a chance to escape into the air. My body was muzzling itself. I would wake up gasping, with a feeling of dread I’d have to shake off before I started the day.
It was an odd, inexplicable dream. Because if pressed, I couldn’t tell a story of a time in my life where I’d been wronged so egregiously that I resorted to furious yelling. Which is not to say I’ve never been upset by someone - but all the times in my life where I could have gotten angry at someone, I chose not to. I was not an angry person.
I was - and still am - terrified of being associated with anger. I think this fear has reasonable grounding. I am a Black woman, and to be an angry Black woman is to be a hypervisible threat, a body that necessitates stamping out. I remember Sandra Bland, whose death was justified by some people because she was ‘uncooperative’ when a police officer pulled her over. I am also terrified of people being angry with me. I’ve come to see a person’s anger as a litmus test of their potential for violence. An angry person is a person with the potential to assault, arrest, or kill me.
Beyond this, though, my distance from anger was coupled with the implicit judgement of others’ anger. If a person was angry at me, I didn’t have to listen to what they were actually saying. I could just tell myself their anger was their own personal failing - something they should work on controlling, rather than something I was obligated to take into earnest consideration. After all, I was never angry.
At least, not in my waking life. In my dreams, I held inside a seething ball of pent up fury unable to escape my body. And in what is almost too perfect of a metaphor to be a coincidence, the incidence of these dreams coinciding with the spring of 2020, a season when Black rage was being splattered across television screens, impossible to miss on our streets. It was outrage that had always been there - is still there - but was being fully revealed to the (white) American public consciousness.
During this same time, people I knew (mostly people from my majority white high school) were explaining on social media, in extensive detail, why they thought Black lives did not matter.
One girl I knew (and liked) said something I found egregiously offensive - it had to do with her unflagging support of all police everywhere, even the ones who were clearly murderers. I felt compelled to message her. But I was not someone who got angry. So in my message, I was chipper. I explained - calmly, didactically - that it was actually a statistical fact that Black people are disproportionately murdered by police in America. I put a smiley face after.
She responded, kindly, that she still held her original opinion (read: she disregarded my opinion), was put off by the looting (read: Black anger) that was taking place, but appreciated my willingness to talk to her (read: the absence of my Black anger).
For hours after this interaction, I did nothing except pace around my room. I could not identify what I was feeling, but I told myself it couldn’t possibly be anger. But telling myself this didn’t mean I never got angry. It meant that when I did get angry, I didn’t let it out. I let it collapse in on itself, calcifiy into other, more identifiable - and more toxic - emotions. Cynicism. Hatred. Apathy.
Later that week, I relayed the experience to two of my close friends, both Black women, who in turn shared their own strikingly similar experiences. For hours, and then days, we told each other each of our grievances - what casual microaggression a classmate had slung via Zoom, which professor had said which racist thing, which post on Instagram had infuriated us most that week.
Even then, I could not name what all-consuming and terrible thing was overwhelming me until one of my friends named it for me. ‘I’m furious’, she typed out. I read it, and then I understood myself. I was angry - I am angry. And I deserve to be.
In her essay “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”, the writer and activist Audre Lorde wrote that women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger, symphony, not cacophony, because we “learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart.” My friends and I were composing the scores of our own lives; conducting them in perfect rhythm.
Anger is like an indicator light in a car. It lets us know something is wrong, that something needs fixing. We aren’t afraid of indicator lights. We’re grateful to them - they help us fix the things that need our attention. In the same way, our anger alerts us to what’s wrong in our world - pushing us towards that grand thing we call justice.
When I finally named my anger, and honored it, I found I could ask myself a new, better question: What will I do next? What will I change? When I named my anger, I was better able to take concrete steps towards fighting against the things I was (and am) angry about. I wrote extensively about things like the history of systemic racism, misogynoir, and shared my writing with the world. I identified which of my actions were unhelpful and toxic (like getting into arguments over social media with people I barely know). I began letting my yells out, crystalizing my anger, letting it inform the ways I lived my life and how I interacted with the world. My waking life departed from my dreams.
Audre Lorde also wrote “It is not the anger of other women that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms...to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.” I believe really good music has the ability to move through us and change us, however slightly, for the better. Good music improves our lives. In the same way, when we let our angers take form, when we orchestrate them, when we listen to the sounds and rhythms they produce, there is potential for something very similar to what a good piece of music can offer: profound, lasting change.
The Life of a Cultural Coconut
By: JJ Kapur ’22
When I was in the second grade, once a week my class lined up single-file and traversed from our homeroom class to the media center: our fancy name for ‘the library.’ My journey to the media center felt like an odyssey—sailing away from boring second grade business like cursive handwriting or memorizing the times tables and landing onto an island of adventures, opportunity, and exploration.
What fascinated me about the media center wasn’t the books. In fact, as a child, I didn’t read many books. I much preferred listening to my father’s stories. Before going to bed at night, I’d beg Papa to spin one of his uproarious tales from when he used to roam the streets of Singapore as a boy. All of his stories started from the same seed of truth, “It was a hot summer day and we all took off our shirts…” that would grow into some new species of fantastical flora, “...that day at the beach, we saw a woman with a long white dress and shiny black hair. As she walked towards us, she left no footprints in the sand. And then we realized—she had no legs.”
I didn’t listen much to Papa’s particular plots—most of them, I later learned, he invented. Instead, I’d watch the way his eyes would widen, his eyebrows furrow like caterpillars, and of course, the way he’d take a long pause…just to test whether or not I wanted to hear more. Without knowing it, my father was giving me a gift, one passed down to him by his elders: an oral tradition of ghost stories, folklore, proverbs, and prayers grounded in truth and nourished by wild imagination.
There was only one other storyteller I knew who rivaled Papa: Mrs. Skoglund, our school librarian. Mrs. Skogulnd’s stories transported me to places I’d never been before: places where trees bore humongous peaches and farm animals could talk like humans! When she read to my class, she wasn’t just reading a book, she was telling a story—and for my eight-year-old mind, those two things were completely different. When Mrs. Skoglund sat on her throne, I sat front and center, criss cross-applesauce, eyes wide open, ready to listen.
Mrs. Skoglund telling a story in the media center.
Among Mrs. Skoglund’s repertoire of stories was Tacky the Penguin, a book series about an eccentric penguin who marches to the beat of his own drum. From wearing floral Hawaiian shirts in the Arctic tundra to performing plays and cheerleading instead of hunting for fish, Tacky never quite fit in with his penguin peers.
In elementary school, I felt a little like Tacky the Penguin. I wore a turban in the Midwest, and Tacky wore tropical shirts in the Arctic; he didn’t fit in neatly anywhere. This was a feeling I could relate to. At school, I was never quite “white enough.” In my yearbook pictures, my patka (a small turban that Sikh children often wear) always seemed to stand out. And although my mother speaks Punjabi fluently, I only ever grew up speaking English at home, so at the gurdwara (Sikh temple), I was never quite “Indian enough.” I only ever knew enough phrases to fill the first page of a pocket translator—a fact my grandfather liked to point out by calling me an ABC: American Born Confused.
At the gurdwara, whenever I’d help distribute langar to our sangat (a free meal to the community), I’d often get caught speaking English by our elder community members whom I always referred to as “Uncle Ji” and “Aunty Ji” even if they weren’t exactly related to me.
“Would you like roti?” I’d say, instead of the Punjabi version: Parshaada Ji? Nearly every time I did this, an Uncle Ji would pull me aside to scold:
“Tusi dastaar bunday ho, par tusi Punjabi nahi bolday?!”
(“You wear a turban, but you don’t speak Punjabi?!”)
Wearing the outer Sikh articles of faith, I looked the part—but to some members of my faith community, I didn’t act it.
It wasn’t just Uncle Ji’s and Aunty Ji’s pointing out my disconnect. My inability to speak my family’s mother tongue became a source of comedy among my brown friends. One day, a friend heard me mispronounce a Sikh prayer and he called me a name I hadn’t heard before: The Coconut.
“What’s a Coconut?” I asked.
“Someone who’s brown on the outside and white on the inside” he said with a laugh. My other friends laughed with him. I forced a smile when I heard this, but beneath my smile, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like having a label placed on me, even if it was a label I couldn’t argue with. Not belonging in either my Indian or American cultural community made me feel like a puzzle piece with jagged edges, one that almost fit...but couldn’t quite make the puzzle whole.
The distance I felt from others didn’t just stem from my confusing cultural identity, it also sprung from my unconventional upbringing. Not only did I feel “out of place,” I also felt “out of time.” My dad grew up in Singapore just as the country became independent from the British Crown in the 1960’s. He was heavily influenced by Western culture, music, and TV shows. These songs and shows became the backbone of my childhood. On Sunday mornings, I’d wake up to the sounds of the three B’s playing on an old CD player: Burt Bacharach, The Beatles, and The Bee Gees. In the evenings, during teatime, my dad would turn on some of his favorite shows: M*A*S*H and Seinfeld. Soon, they became my favorite shows, too.
On field trips, while my classmates screamed the lyrics to “Party In The USA,” I’d be secretly humming Bacarach’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” or, my other favorite, Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” When my friends talked about a new episode of The Powerpuff Girls they watched last night, I’d report back on what Radar O’Reilly was up to on M*A*S*H. Looking back on my childhood years, I probably would’ve fit in better at a retirement home than in an elementary school.
I didn’t mind looking, talking, and thinking differently from my peers. In fact, my unique taste in popular culture and music was something I drew strength from. It was my father who encouraged me to feel comfortable in my own skin. He was the one who cheered me on when I let down my unshorn hair for the fourth-grade talent show, dressed up like John Travolta, and played “Stayin’ Alive” on my mini-Fender electric guitar. Most of the time, being different was awesome!
But I do remember feeling like something was missing. I longed to know other kids like me—kids with quirky tastes who felt like they, too, were caught between different worlds. It wasn’t until adolescence when I started to find what I was looking for.
In middle school, I joined a community of misfits: the Speech and Debate Team. And not just any ordinary misfits—vocal ones. Pen flipping kids who loved arguing about deontological philosophy at four hundred words per minute. Collectively, our team spanned six different grade levels and four different Speech and Debate events, but we connected over a passion to make our voices—and quirkiness—heard.
For years, I competed in Original Oratory, a public speaking event where the speaker addresses societal problems and solutions. My speech and debate coach, Dave, encouraged me to bring my coconut-ness to each of my speeches. I’d walk onto the stage, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and touch the ground to feel the earth beneath my feet. Touching the ground, the Sikh practice known as Matha Taykna, signifies humility and submission: an acknowledgment of the land our gurus once stood on. Dave’s belief in the sacredness of the stage came from another spiritual notion, the Dojo: a formal Japanese martial arts training ground treated with utmost care and respect. When Dave learned Tae Kwon Do, his instructor taught him to enter the Dojo with a clear mind, free from distractions or “baggage.” Dave would often remind me at the start of a tournament: “JJ, the stage is a Dojo: the moment you enter, you must leave all of your baggage at the door and become completely present with the audience in front of you.”
With Dave’s words at the forefront of my mind, I’d open my eyes and give the audience something they weren’t expecting. I’d start my speeches by dancing the bhangra, a Punjabi folk dance, performing the Haka, an indigenous Maori warrior dance, or even singing the theme song from Rocky.
As I practiced, I found a steadiness in my voice. I’d use my whole physicality and imagination to persuade people and give them story, and, in doing so, make myself legible. Even though there were times when the blinding overhead stage lights obscured the faces of the audience, I could feel their energy fueling my performance and putting me into a blissful state of flow.
Speech and debate helped me realize where I belonged: on the stage, and to a lineage of storytellers. Mrs. Skoglund, Papa, and Dave all taught me the power of storytelling to heal, to make sense of my experiences, and to foster points of connection and harmony with others. Now, I’ve found my place among them. When given the sacred opportunity to stand before an audience, I’m not only called to tell a story, I’m called to tell my truth. Storytelling doesn’t force us to change who we are to get applause or to make others laugh; it challenges us to be who we are.
After graduating Stanford, I hope to become a clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of mental illnesses across cultures. The multiculturalism and multi-generationalism I grew up with will give me a unique insight into the challenges of immigrants who, like me, struggle to find a sense of belonging in America. Having a strong grasp of both Punjabi and American cultures would empower me to work through the traumas of Sikh community members. They won’t need to "code-switch," or explain the nuances of the Sikh diaspora and its complicated history; I’ll know where they’re coming from.
I now recognize the profound strength “Coconuts” like me have to offer. Drop me in any nursing home in Iowa, and I could talk for hours with the residents about their favorite episodes of The Lawrence Welk Show. Drop me in a mosque in California, and I’d love to share a cup of chai and strike up a conversation about how much Sikhs and Muslims have in common. Heck, even drop me in a town with one traffic light and one stop sign, and I’m sure we’d be able to sing some Johnny Cash together.
All these years later, I still feel like Tacky: the character I loved so much from story time with Mrs. Skoglund. I now know that Tacky was a Galapagos penguin who could live in the Arctic’s freezing cold and the Tropics’ melting heat, and feel just as at home in both places. I can too.
By: Luciana Frazao MS ’21
A weird thing started to happen to me after a few months of quarantine. I began to look at the mirror and like that person staring back. Her curly frizzy hair, her imperfect skin, the constant dark circles around her eyes — she never sleeps enough (and even when she does, still looks like she doesn’t). Despite it all, I started to like the person she has become. It’s an entirely new feeling for me. For most of my life, I avoided that person in the mirror.
“What about your father?”
That was the question I was always running away from in middle school. I would mention my mother, sister, brother, or grandma, but never my father. It was pretty complicated to explain that my mother divorced my father after she came out as gay. And once my parents separated, my father decided to divorce my siblings and me too. How to explain to them that, instead of a father, I now had a transgender stepfather?
In a sexist country like Brazil, homosexuality was something filthy, a perverted thing. It was common to see gay couples beaten on the street for holding hands. To this day, Brazil is the country that kills more members of the LGBTQI population than anywhere else the world. So instead of telling the truth, I chose the most comfortable way to answer my classmates’ question. I created a great dad.
When people asked about him, I said I had spent the weekend with him when, really, I had spent it at home or with another relative. It was entertaining to imagine great stories, to always have a good reason he wasn’t around. It was a complicated feeling, you know? The person who, in theory, should love me unconditionally chose to leave. And if he left, that must mean I wasn't good enough. If the person who was supposed to love me no matter what didn't love me, why would any other person?
Eventually, middle school ended. And with it, so did my “problem.” I had successfully hidden what, in my perspective, made me different from my classmates. High school was going to be easy.
In Brazil, we have some great public schools, but admission is based on a test kind of like the SAT, and the acceptance rate is pretty low. These public schools give low-income families access to quality education. But many parents who would be able to afford private schools have their children take the exam as well. After all, it’s a good education for free. Competing with kids who had access to more resources wasn’t easy, I didn't get accepted. I had studied for an entire year for nothing.
I was devastated. I really wanted to study at a good school. So, I made a crazy plan. I asked my mom not to enroll me in school that next year. I was going to spend the whole year, all my time, studying for the exam. I had to try again. If I stayed at my current school, I’d have no future.
My family urged my mother to ignore me. After all, I was 15 years old. "What does she know about life?" they said. But, she accepted my pleas. By the end of the year, I was not only accepted, but I had earned the highest score. I nailed the exam!
I thought getting accepted to a good public school school was the hard part. In fact, the hard part was feeling accepted there. As the youngest daughter in a poor family, my new clothes were not necessarily new. You could clearly see that my clothes were not mine, and I could see by the look in my classmates’ eyes that they knew.
Every day going to school was the same feeling: everybody looking at me, staring precisely to the point where I had a stain on my pants or the exact spot on my shirt where I had a hole. That look. That look that the other person gives that shows how superior they think they are. The talk behind my back, when they didn't even try to hide that I was the subject. Me and my ridiculous clothes.
At that time, I started to work. It was a tradition in my family that you begin to work during high school to help with the household expenses. I began to work as a math tutor, and with that money, was able to help my mother at home and have some money to myself, something that I’d never had before. That money was the solution to my problem. Now, I could buy real new clothes.
Not having nice clothes, In my mind, what was the root of my problems. So I started to buy clothes compulsively. Adulthood — in my family, when you turn 16, you’re an adult! Adulthood also introduced me to a new tool: credit cards.
I think that's enough information for you to know that I got myself into problems. But it's ok, in the end, everything worked out. I had a lot of nice new clothes. People started to look at me differently. They began to smile and make small talk with me. I had friends, a fantastic family, and — in a certain way — I learned how to deal with credit cards. Next challenge: college.
In Brazil, your grade on a standardized test determines your acceptance to college. The test is tough. I studied like crazy, and I got the grade that gained me acceptance to one of the best — and most expensive — universities of Brazil with a 100% scholarship. I was super excited about college life!
But my perfect imaginary family and my new clothes were not enough to make me fit in. If I thought I was different during middle and high school, now I might as well have been an alien. People from the most traditional — and wealthy — families in Brazil went to this school. For example, one of my classmates was the grandson of a former Brazilian president.
How could I fit in a place like this? I felt like nothing that I could do would make me feel welcome in that place. I always had voluminous and curly hair, so it was difficult to make it look beautiful according to the standards. During middle school, my nickname had been ”walking broom.”
At college, everybody was beautiful — beautiful girls with perfect skin and fantastic hair. I was invisible. During my first two years, I only made one friend, someone who had the same background as me. I started to straighten my hair using chemical products. Then, I began to dye it blond. I don't know if it was the hair itself or just that I was feeling more confident, but I started to make friends, go to parties, and sleep at my girlfriend's places. I had a lot of fun. But after a while, I started to feel off.
I lost track of my real self. I was trying so hard to be like everybody else that I started to erase my own individuality. I began to notice that I didn't like the things I “liked.” I didn't enjoy talking with my “friends” because they didn't like to talk about the things I wanted to talk about. After a while, I even felt this way about the songs I listened to. I’d stop myself and think Why am I listening to this?
Afraid of not being accepted, I hid from so many people that I even hid from myself.
After finishing my undergrad and gaining more financial independence, things started to change. I began going to different places, exploring various musical genres, and reading new things. I started making new friendships with people who enjoyed the same things as I did, who have similar mindsets. Then, I came to Stanford.
Away from Brazil, from the society that would judge me, I felt a new freedom to be myself. Here, if I speak up about what's on my mind, I even find people who agree with me! Here, I’ve finally been able to create bonds with great people by just being myself.
But it was the quarantine that, in a certain way, forced me to be a better person for myself. Needing to limit who I spend time with, I began to be more selective and surround myself with only good people.
Amazing things can happen when you surround yourself with people who bring positivity to your life. Their support has made it possible for me to reckon with who I am and what truly matters to me. I’ve even started to feel proud of my journey and all the things I tried to hide for so long.
After reckoning with my true nature, I recognize that if people don't accept or respect you, their opinions are irrelevant. What really matters is respecting your true self, and having people who celebrate you for who you are by your side.
Now that I have that, I'm not hiding anymore.
By: Kory Gaines ’21
My father loves to fix random stuff in our home. Once, during this past summer's quarantine at home, I remember being woken up earlier than I would have liked to by the sound of my father taking out his toolbox. The tools clank around against one another inside. The top doesn't close all the way; you can hear it grate against the place where it should lock.
His toolbox is green with a black handle, and much heavier than it looks. You must grab it with two hands, one on the handle atop and other on the bottom. It holds everything you would expect: miscellaneous screws, nuts, and bolts, a wrench, a Phillips screwdriver, and a flathead. There are other somewhat cool knickknacks, like a screwdriver with interchangeable tips connecting to the handle with a kind of magic called magnetism. Pull the top compartment out, and you’ll find an ancient hammer and the biggest pair of pliers. Sometimes, my dad holds the toolbox to his side cuffed in his arm like a toddler throwing a tantrum. This morning, he was screwing a makeshift lock into the wall and door of my twin sister's bathroom on the other side of our two-bedroom apartment, through a corridor from my room to the living room, through the living room where my nephew's toys lay, in the hallway leading into my twin sister's room.
His power drill buzzes, shaking the whole house. It punctures holes where the latch lock will soon be. No one’s sleeping now.
"What’s all that noise, Dad?" We're confused, even though my sister had been complaining about her bathroom door not having a lock since forever. Pops figured we didn’t need to call the maintenance man for every malfunction. He laughs in the face of guarantees of renter's insurance. He got it himself.
In August, I watched my uncle pull up with tools to help my older sister build a dresser . He was doing what his tools empower him to do: help and show up for his community and family. I had yet to think about how toolboxes are significant outside of one's own household, immediate family, and oneself. In the wintertime for example, Uncle Derrick is the go-to man in his neighborhood for shovels when folks are snowed in. Shovels don’t fit in a toolbox, but his community goes to him as a resource for this large tool. In turn, he feels needed, interconnected, and grounded again by helping them. Community is his power!
My dad’s and uncle's toolboxes both started small. My dad started with a small ratchet set, Uncle Derrick with screwdrivers and channel locks. Both of them expanded their collection while their children were pretty young. In recounting when they got their tool boxes together, the mention of their young children marked both of their responses. The birth of Uncle Derrick's third child influenced him to get a maintenance job, leading him to get a toolbox for both home and work. When my dad got his fully fledged green toolbox, I was a small child and lived on 1st Street NW Washington, D.C., a community he recalls often.
Elders and their toolboxes have been a symbol of being grounded for me lately. Before March, I couldn’t tell you the last time my dad's toolbox didn’t fade into the background. But being in the presence of toolboxed elders again, I see how they invest care when fixing things up. They’ve been making this investment for my entire life, but I didn’t have a full, deep understanding until now. It’s grounding to me, knowing they’re prepared to take care of their place and people. I aspire to do the same.
The toolboxed elders have probably stayed in one place or another for a while, and they care for these places with their tools. They assemble new pieces of furniture, hopefully following directions. They repair or build anew.
Finding ground requires a certain awareness. Awareness that the ground you are on may be unstable; awareness that you may not be on any ground at all. This awareness that you need to ground yourself is the first step. An eye to what could use some fixing or what piece of furniture is missing from a space is a similar awareness. Awareness of one's needs is a prerequisite for my toolboxed elders and the practice of finding ground. The will and skill to address one's needs is what I admire.
In a way, I see finding ground as reparative. You fix yourself up by finding ground, and you need the right tools to address whichever specific ways you feel shaken. Perhaps you fix the unstable ground you find yourself on. Perhaps you find new ground entirely.
My toolboxed elders remind me that they are ready, and I can be ready and stay ready if I remind myself that I have my own tools too. They remind me that we are a people who find a way, people who create toolboxes when physical tools aren’t an option. We are a resourceful people.
One of my tools is the pen, poetry, and art. I admire the work of others and create my own. I often find clarity and ground myself in my journal. I get out of my head, and dialogue with the page. I think with the written words to get a better understanding of myself, who I am and who I have been. I learn how to express myself better verbally. I have written random, seemingly useless words and lines in my journal. Later on, I find a purpose for those words.
My journal is my version of a toolbox it seems. I drop reflections, ideas, uncompleted lines of poems, and meditations into it as my hammer, wrench, and screwdriver. I may need those tools in that moment or much later. If I find those words useful, thoughtful, or lyrical enough , I recite them back to myself for comfort. I relay them to my friends and community. I share polished journal entries, hopeful that the weight of my words bring us to a place where we can all be held, by each other and the ground.
Tomorrow Never Comes, But We Chase It Anyway
By: Darnell (DeeSoul) Carson ’20
When news of COVID hit back in March, the realizations came in waves. The initial thought was the same as most students: extended Spring Break! But, as the updates continued rolling in, so did the questions I found myself grappling with: where would I live? What did a virtual quarter mean for my ability to engage with school work? How would new social guidelines change my day-to-day life?
I had met this kind of uncertainty before. I was practically born into it. My biological parents never married, but I went through the divorce of my mother and step-father, and by third grade, my three sisters, mother, and I were homeless, couch-surfing the homes of people willing to take us, kind neighbors, kinder strangers, and whatever man my mother had met that week. The only thing I could ever be certain of was that everything could change at the drop of a hat.
I still remember quite vividly the day we left San Diego, my mother packing my three sisters and I into her little Cadillac with the frenzy of something desperately trying to escape, like a moth caught in a jar. We drove all night, from San Diego to the East Bay. We had gone from everything we knew to the Pittsburg apartment of an aunt and cousins I never remembered meeting, with only two garbage bags full of clothes and a bird that never stopped squawking. I went from having my own room (as my mother’s only boy) to sharing a mattress on the floor with my cousins.
Everything I ever owned, all my toys and books and games, we had to leave behind in a storage locker. That would eventually be auctioned off, once my mother couldn’t afford it anymore. As a rising third-grader, I took that really hard (I had amassed quite the collection of Power Rangers and Yu-Gi-Oh cards).
Losing my belongings showed me how impermanent things were — my toys, where we lived, my mother’s mental health — all were at the mercy of circumstance. I learned the only thing I could truly rely on, the one thing that couldn’t let me down or be ripped away from me, was me, my intelligence and my work ethic and whatever shreds of joy I was able to hold on to.
When everything went to shit in March, I was trying to operate with the same philosophy I had when I was a child: Be the constant I felt was needed. When my biological parents would argue, I did my best to be the thing that brought them joy. When my mother divorced, I tried to be bright enough to keep her depression at bay. When we were moving every several months, I kept my grades up at whatever new school I ended up in so I didn’t become another thing causing my mother to worry. I met uncertainty by convincing myself I could hold things together.
The thing about meeting the moment is that you have to meet the moment where it is, not where you want it to be. When you’re homeless, the moment is a moving target. In my aunt’s apartment, meeting the moment could be karaoke nights in the yellow light of the living room, all of us laughing as my siblings and I sang off-key to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” When we were sleeping in the car, it was seeing who could count the most out-of-state license plates of the other passing cars. When my older sisters were taken back to San Diego by the police without my mother’s knowledge, it was helping my twin sister make sure all her homework was completed and packed in her backpack the mornings when my mom couldn’t get out of bed.
Anyone who knows me now knows that I keep everything organized. I make sure all my ducks are in a row, I have back-up plans for my back-up plans. It’s a trauma response, and a world-shifting pandemic is just about the most triggering thing life could have dropped on me. I haven’t been this unsure of anything in a while, and it’s surfaced a lot of insecurities I have about the future I thought I had buried for good.
We were all looking forward to 2020 — it was going to be our year. Instead, we’ve found ourselves in a state of upheaval, or reckoning, or renewal. Police brutality has forced us to consider our collective history with systemic racism. Nature has hit America with natural phenomena in unprecedented magnitudes. The election season brings new questions about what direction we want to take this country at such a pivotal moment in our existence.
Needless to say, that is not the year we imagined or planned for. But, it’s still our year. There has been a lifting of the veil, of sorts, and we have been tasked to deal with what’s underneath, all the brokenness and unjustness of this world rearing its ugly head. Like many of us, I’ve been afraid to ask what that means for our tomorrow. But I, and we, have to. If there’s any hope of salvaging what’s left of this year, we have to look at this uncertainty being handed to us and face it.
As a child of calamity, I have always looked into the future for solace. Now that the future is unclear, I’m learning how to live in the present, how to be present. In psychology class, I recently learned that if we don’t acknowledge the things eating at us, if we don’t feed the curiosity or the confusion, it will impact our ability to focus on anything else. To be present in this moment, we can’t pretend this *insert sweeping arm gesture alluding to the world* isn’t happening. Even if we try to ignore it, if we try to hold everything together and act like we aren’t bothered (as younger-me did) our brains will know. And it will only impact our ability to meet the moment authentically.
For me, that means acknowledging that most of the plans I’ve made are in an indefinite “subject to change” status. And I hate that. Like, a lot. But the point is that I acknowledge that I hate it. After all this time, I’ve finally learned that the first step to dealing with things that irk or confuse me or leave me in fog is to accept that they are doing those things. That they exist, that they’re real.
Instead of trying to hold things together, I’ve started to acknowledge that everything I’ve grown used to is falling apart. I still make my plans — because that’s become an integral way I make sense of the world — but I’ve made a lot more room for maybes.
And there’s one last reality to consider: There’s no real way to meet uncertainty. If there were, it wouldn’t be uncertainty, it would just be an inconvenience. There’s no crystal ball or tarot card that can tell us what’s coming next. But just because we can’t banish uncertainty, it doesn’t mean we can’t honor the way it unsettles us. That is the moment we have to meet, those intrusive late-night thoughts trying to convince us we won’t be able to make it. Every day, we are making it in a billion small ways. We’re getting out of bed, sitting through awkward Zoom silences, and still, with all that’s happening, finding reasons to laugh.