"Work" is the second of a few pieces I will be slowly sharing from my Senior Capstone, Oh, The Places.
Oh, The Places, is a collection of 15 short, creative nonfiction essays focusing on the theme of place. This project was meant to be like a plein air painting (but with words), like sketches. I wanted readers to feel like a close friend handed over their personal journal or a box of intimate letters. I wanted the collection to be a delicate thing of beauty like a single flower or a rabbit in the night.
I was inspired by many artists (Jenny Slate, Patti Smith, Lauren Elkin, Durga Chew-Bose, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Smithson, Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, Lewis Carroll, Maggie Nelson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Charlie Mackesy, Jamaica Kincaid, and Greta Gerwig in particular) and I have immense gratitude and respect for my wonderful professors at The New School for motivating me to refine my voice and use it. This project would not be possible without Rebecca Reilly, Richard Tayson, Timothy Quigley, Laura Cronk, and, of course, the incredible Lisa Freedman.
Music That Inspired My Project:
Behind The Scenes:
This essay came about from a place of heartbreak and vulnerability and anger—all emotions I very rarely feel. I wrote this first for an assignment in Laura Cronk’s course Essay Writing: Truth and Culture, and I’ve continued to edit it. I worked really hard to include so many sensory details and I was really happy with the result as well as the illustration. I think the use of quotes changes the tone and distinguishes this piece from the rest in the collection while also building upon the ideas presented in “You Woke Up: A Conversation.”
The concept of work stems from a seed planted in a void of nothingness. The many branches of work fill time, consume time, even kill time. As a child, you were taught to play. Playing seems to be the antithesis to working. Time and play are simply incompatible as play can take place in imaginary realms that don’t function along the same axis of reality as the working-world.
As a kid, oftentimes work and play coincided so seamlessly it was hard to differentiate between the two until one day you couldn’t even remember when the playing ceased. Suddenly, everything became work.
Coloring pages and picture books were replaced by arithmetic and literature. Even friendships became harder to navigate when unbound from multicolored bracelets woven with love.
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You’re older now and each facet of your life requires work. You put effort into setting aside time for school, for family, friends, a relationship, self-care, self-love, meditation, eating, showering, and the list goes on. Days are divided into hours, into minutes—seconds to work on becoming the best, most realized, and truest version of yourself. When you’re so busy working on your own, it comes as a shock when he tells you he wants to work on things together.
Your phone screen lights up. You press your thumb to the screen and navigate to iMessage. Black text in a gray bubble floats harmlessly as you read: Go check your mailbox.
You walk outside, bare feet on the driveway, and retrieve the sheets of folded paper with your name etched in pencil on the front. A love letter? Words of affirmation? Your heart races in anticipation.
You carry the note close to your naive heart back up the stairs to open in bed and your stomach sinks as you read the unexpected words.
Because, when he tells you he wants to work on things together, what he really means is that unless you change, he is leaving. Sometimes the truth is sour, deafening, rancid, unclear, and hurtful. But, sometimes letting truth fester within is worse. So, he let his truth build up until it exploded. It was as surprising as a dormant volcano erupting—you knew you were dealing with a volcano, you knew it was full of magma and history, but still, you thought you were safe.
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You knew there were problems. You did. You knew that. But, how do you address problems when you don’t want to change, but you need to remain likeable? Loveable even? In her essay, On Likeability, Lacy M. Johnson hypothesizes that “... perhaps, one reason—maybe the primary reason—that the world tries so hard to pressure you to be likable (and to punish you when you aren’t) is because they are afraid you will realize that if you don’t need anyone to like you, you can be any way you want. You can tell any story. You can tell the truth.”
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The truth consisted of crying and worrying. You drove to his house first thing in the morning after a sleepless night. You ate egg and onion matzo in your car once you were parked in his driveway and took photos of your puffy eyes and tear stained face. Why is that when faced with your own crying image, things feel a little bit lighter? You aren’t sure, so you let yourself laugh and cry at what it means to work.
Working on things tastes like semen at midnight. Hot almond milk that you will wake up tasting on your tongue because you and your toothbrush slept in different houses. It tastes like peanut sauce, cauliflower crust pizza, and the scrambled eggs that you know you will miss—the way he mixes olive oil and butter together in the hot pan, cracks two eggs against the side, and mixes them over the heat. It tastes like the turmeric ginger tea from Trader Joe’s you would never be able to drink again. Even now, viewing the boxes of the tea perched serenely in the cupboard feels oddly confrontational. Through bittersweet lists, rants, long conversations, and text messages you wish to believe that someday you won’t have anything left to work on at all.
That part is funny.
Working on things sounds like tears muffled by a hyperventilating mouth pressed up against a tee shirt. It sounds like fragmented truths. Each one rises to the surface like a bubble in a carbonated refreshment. Pop. But, there’s nothing refreshing about it. It sounds like crying in the bathtub as your eyes and the faucet run. It sounds like saying the same things on repeat, but always striving to come up with a better way. Almost like when an amateur band covers a classic like “Across the Universe.” Working on things sounds like that song in particular. It meant something to you both, but it is now more depressing than the sad songs you suddenly relate to.
Time to hit shuffle.
Working on things smells like a lit match. Like their parents’ home cooked dinners that your nose tries to remember especially while you’re in the middle of eating cold peanut noodles and lettuce cups filled with sriracha tofu. It smells like the meals you will always remember preparing together—pressing corn tortillas into a heavy metal press or cooking meat and veggies in a fondue pot. It smells like the salt water streaming down your eyes, and you wonder if your tears and his come from different oceans. Maybe when your faces touch it’s like the Pacific and the Adriatic are mixing together.
Working on things looks like walking through fog. Everything is slightly distorted and blurry. Slightly damp. Your green eyes and his are mirrors that are very hard to look into because the image is realer than that reflected by silvered glass. It looks like a starless sky, a moonless night, a sunless day. A broken ladder, a broken bridge, the broken bracelet with the little white daisy with a yellow center from a vintage shop in Brooklyn. It looks like the emptiness in your habitat where you removed all of the distractions so you could think—gaps on the walls where pictures and cards hung, or the gap on your bedside table where the hand carved wooden mushroom statue from his trip to Bali serves as a home for the air plant you’ll probably manage to keep alive longer than your Love.
Working on things feels like being in the eye of a hurricane. Nothing is actually happening to you, but chaos surrounds. It’s memorizing collarbones with your fingertips and using kisses as apologies. You care about being likeable, lovable, perfect. You worry about doing everything you possibly can to fix anything. Well, anything but yourself. But maybe you’d even give that a try. Because the truth is that all of your deepest insecurities, fears, and flaws have been presented before you and illuminated by your Love. The voices in your head, your inner monologue, cannot help but to sing in unison He has a point. Avoidance isn’t a healthy coping mechanism.
But it is an easy one.
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I think that as women we are told for so long what we want. Yet, how often are we asked? In The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asks “How can you love somebody and yet want to manage the amount of happiness that person is allowed?” (Adichie 153). I ask: Do you want to be in a relationship? Do you want to be in love? We are often told it requires hard work, sacrifice, and compromise—but should it have to? Do you want to take control or give it up? Do you want to do both, and can you? Do you want to pursue your own career or live in the shadow of his? In her autobiography, The Power Notebooks, Katie Roiphe points out how “Fantasies of quasimaternal power involve a tricky kind of subjugation to someone else’s difficulties; it is an antique female idea of taking care of things, assuming control, but at the same time erasing one’s own desires,” (Roiphe 88). So I ask: Do you want to erase your own desires? Do you want to be the one responsible for birth control and accept that we live in a patriarchal society that puts more responsibility on women than men yet placing that responsibility on women just serves to demonstrate that men have more power than women?
As Rebecca Solnit writes in “if I were a man” these questions revolving around gender inequality are nearly impossible to answer because, “How do you think big when you’re supposed to not get in the way, not overstep your welcome, not overshadow or intimidate?”
We are inundated by stories of sexual assault, emotional abuse, and misogynistic micro-aggressions so we must pause and wonder: what is the reason for this? Why is this imbalance so hard to shift?
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Maybe it’s because as Solnit says, “Gender shapes the spaces – social, conversational, professional, as well as literal – that we are given to occupy,” or that “Having strong opinions and clear ideas is incompatible with being flatteringly deferential,” (Solnit). But, maybe in addition to those sentiments, it is because working on things doesn’t taste like sugar. It doesn’t sound like a kitten purring. Because it doesn’t smell like freshly baked cookies or look like a sunset. Maybe because hard work isn’t supposed to be feminine—isn’t supposed to feel like a woman’s job.
But here I am, here you are, here we all are…
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