In Our Memory (an early draft)

“If something is there, you can only see it with your eyes open, but if it isn’t there, you can see it just as well with your eyes closed. That’s why imaginary things are often easier to see than real ones.” — Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth


Friday, he burned his first American flag in the corner under the stairs right where the snow collected itself into icy sheets like waves against the concrete. His mother said that was taking it too far, but we thought it was pretty cool.
He said that America was freedom, but you could only truly be free if you did the things you weren’t supposed to. He’d tried to tell himself that his father’s freedom came from dying in the war, but we had seen the flag posted into the ground on his grave, and it seemed to pin his father down. This flag burning was a necessary evil, he assured us, just like smashing flies in the window to feed to the cat, and the government needed some resistance anyway.

When he started burning money, we felt terrifically free, but we wanted to snatch it from above the lighter just imagining the things we could buy with the twenties that curled to ash. His mother didn’t know about this part. We thought she might have suspected him of buying drugs, but the truth is she probably didn’t notice the money was gone. He wouldn’t tell us when we asked if he loved her. James was the sort of person you’d expect to die early. Not because he was depressed or unhealthy, but because he had too much faith in his ability to live. When he teased greenbacks with his lighter, he didn’t see a lack of funds, he saw power in the smoke and he held them close to his face so he might capture that power in his lungs. He was free and wild, in a soft way. We were mesmerized.
We walked to his house along the cracked sidewalk where grass split from the creases to tickle our soles, but we heard his mother slam the screen door as we approached. We began to walk back, avoiding cracks in habitual second nature.

“Leave, if you want. Or help me out?” James was standing on the steps picking at the turquoise paint that curled from the shingles. “My goldfish died. Again. I really can’t be trusted, really, really can’t… Ah well,” he smiled as we joined him.

“Shut up, James! Shut up.” His mother’s voice sifted through the windows like sand. James shrugged and bounded down the steps.

We buried Samson, the goldfish, under a bush in James’ front yard while he paced around in circles, hands behind his back singing “Amazing Grace” in a dramatic wail. His mother yelled for quiet, but he did not oblige. She was a tall woman, intimidating in stature and words, but harmless in action. Sometimes it crossed our minds that James only liked us because he didn’t think she did. We never proved nor disproved that. The problem, or the solution, really, is to believe in something. If you believe it, it could very well become true, assuming it wasn’t already. We hated to admit it, but we know we were nothing before we crossed James’ mind for the first time. He had been on a ferry, four year old hands gripping the railing in a yellow stairway. He listened to a little girl asking her mother why the ferry didn’t have wings. The boat rocked from side to side and we found ourselves rolling across the salt beaten stairs, seven legs to each, an undetermined number of iridescent black eyes and as James watched us, we became.       We grew to believe that without us he’d probably shrivel up a bit, the way we might if we died on a windowsill or were kept inside a jar for too long. Much like spiders. Really quite a lot like spiders, James decided.        
He sat on the stairs, lighter limp in his rebelliously un-gloved fingers, eyes red. He had been up since two in the morning, there were four stolen, torn, ashy American flags in the corner. He liked the way ashes could hold their shape before crumbling away to dust. We taught him to enjoy the idea of something becoming colorless and being held up by a simple idea. He said he wasn’t tired. His mother had been sleeping, it made the house too quiet, and there was no rest for him in silence. Something inside his brain was shifting, fusing, a clockwork machine, bursting and buckling. The rewiring configuration of thoughts, memories and motives sparked as it ground away at it’s work, dusting adolescence from him. We wanted so badly to know if he was alright. His hands clambered for the tea we had brought. He poured it out over his shoes and crouched there, staring through the jasmine steam that curled from his leather toes. Every fight with him was lost before it began, his feet remained dry. We watched him sitting there, so quiet. It was terrifying to be unheard, the barrier between us expanded like his mother had promised. James never believed her. In our own all-knowing vanity, neither did we. Just last week she said he was too old to still have imaginary friends.

“Independent…” He drug his fingers through the ashes, collapsing the folded and torn edges of the flags.

“What?”

“I am…Independent…” he’d said it so many times that it wasn’t a word anymore. It had melted into something unfamiliar, fragmented like a cough drop in summer, shards of something foreign, unrecognizable.We stared up at him, festooned in ribbons across the rail, inquisitive.

He spoke to his hands, told us that he’d been at the river. He’d thrown another flag, off of a cliff this time, into the river in the night and he’d watched it smolder as it lay to rest on the water. It pulled at the tarnished fabric, anchoring the pain like his father’s grave. They had camped there once before, James and his father. We had climbed trees and tossed flat stones into the river while they sang together at the camp fire.

This time, we asked why he hadn’t taken us with him. He’d forgotten us. We were the moving shadows in the corners of his eyes, we used to be all he could see. The clouds gathered grey around the trees and James finally smiled. He had expected it to be amazing. Independence. Growing up. But he felt alone. The world was unfamiliar. It was thrilling and terrifying all at once. He was crumbling like the flags and he felt for a moment, that he might blow away in a million different directions.  

Friday, we started to disappear. Nothing dramatic but loss, our numbers dropped, fell through our legs as we tangled together in fear. We had never entertained the idea of death, it was unbearable, for that singular moment before turning to nothingness, that we would only be memory. James would cry as he buried our now invisible bodies under the bush near Samson, but he wouldn’t sing “Amazing Grace.” He never liked to sing alone. He might’ve walked inside then, wiping away those tears and maybe his mother would finally understand. She would hug him and cry a little herself, over his shoulder, knowing that if he lost us, she would lose some part of him. He wasn’t that little boy he used to be, yet with the memories of us and his father and some wild determination for the future, he was more himself than he ever had been.

Senior Speech

High school has been a transitional time for me, and as cliche as it sounds, I believe it has been for everyone here in this room, in one way or another. I want to thank my teachers, including my parents, my sister, my peers and the people who have taught classes here at West Valley because when it comes down to it, we are all here teaching each other constantly. Not just between bells, but always, and for that, I am eternally grateful. For all of you.

I spent my elementary school days like many of us did, writing books that would certainly make me a famous author, watercoloring and exploring. Home schooling allowed me to follow my passion, travel and learn from experiences that I will remember for my entire life.

I’ve spent more nights of my life sleeping under the stars next to a volkswagon van than I have sleeping inside. And while most of those nights were followed by cold mornings or waking up to a raccoon-ravaged campsite, they were preciously imperfect.

I joined the Wolfpack at the beginning of my Junior year. Ms. Heimer greeted me by name at her door, and I was, of course, in awe.
It was about a year since I had begun my recovery from an eating disorder and probably three since I had written anything more than a journal entry here or there. All of the sudden someone was encouraging me, teaching me, and most importantly, telling me that I was allowed, even encouraged, to fail. Not to fail on purpose, but to let myself be imperfect, to criticize with the intent of rebuilding, rather than destroying.

At some point, she told us to write about whatever it was that was begging to be written about. Of course for me, that was my tireless obsession with perfection and my dangerous pursuit of it.

It was terrifying, reading a piece of myself that was so private and flawed to this group of strangers and old acquaintances. I had hardly told anyone about what I was going through, and all of the sudden there it was, being discussed by an entire classroom of my peers. But I learned something that day that I can’t quite put to words.
I learned that sharing something unfinished, something so far from perfect, could take that desperate need to achieve perfection and turn it into a willingness to try for better rather than the best. In the words of Heimer, “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”  
And I did. I rewrote and designed that essay, it was published months later in a magazine, even though it could never be perfect. And somehow, I was humbled.

Somewhere along the way, I also had a moment of realization. That people, no matter how happy, or beautiful or care-free, all had some sort of problem. Something that made them sad, or that left them feeling alone in the world. Looking back on it now, I can’t imagine how I didn’t know that before, but I know now that perfection has absolutely no form.

It isn’t always easy, but it is advantageous to remember. As Salvador Dali said, “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.”

As we all look forward to this future that we face, we find ourselves supplied heavily with everyone’s advice.

We have parents, family, teachers, an endless pool of people that seem to know what might be best for us to do. And underneath it all, it’s a pressure. They want us to be happy, which ends up sounding like they want success, and it is almost impossible to separate success from perfection. In fact, many well known and respected people have spoken about the flaws of our perception of perfectness. Tolstoy says “If you look for perfection, you will never be content.” and I believe that we would all do well to keep that in mind as we head out on our own.

We are all different people, we will all fail at different times, but it is inevitable that none of us will ever be perfect. And instead of scaring or demoralizing you, let that be the source of your freedom.

Just the other day, Heimer said that the word “perfect” never used to mean flawless. It meant “complete”, so I stand here today telling you to live your life to it’s absolute fullest. Full of flaws, full of laughter, full of love and happiness. Remember that you are complete, and therefore the most perfect you can be is the way you are now and the person you will grow to be. Learn from your mistakes as if they were curves in your path, and don’t ever be afraid to stumble.

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Fastest Rant I’ve Ever Written…

…And I still haven’t said it all…
(In no way is this a required read, I just had to type away at my anger for a few minutes)4d330599d99f03e3dd540607e2bad8cf

Do not try to tell me that the results of every election are like this. Do not tell me that I am upset because my candidate didn’t win. This election, the presidential election of 2016, is no longer about politics. It’s about human rights, freedom, and the true ideals that hold this country together.
Just over a week ago, I stood in the ski hall at Birch Hill waiting for a bus. Somehow, eight years before, on that very day, a ten year old version of myself was doing the same. That night, I had danced in circles, filled with a thrill that I didn’t quite understand. The first black president had been elected to office. 2008. I don’t think we understood the magnitude of what had happened, we had bubbly stomachs and shrill voices. Our legs were sore from skiing, but we danced anyway, chanting “Obama, Obama, Obama!”
Just last week, I stood there, eighteen, with my sister and my peers. Some of them joked about the potential results of the election, we nervously checked our phones, Trump was ahead. Horrified, we discussed and decided it was too early to tell yet. Perhaps too horrifying to believe.
Somebody said he’d burn his star spangled onesie and hat, another said she’d move. There were tears behind some of our eyes as our hearts beat harder, no longer from the exertion of practice.
This time, before I went home, I voted. I stood in the tiny stall and watched my hands shake over the names. What if I accidentally marked the wrong one and didn’t resolve it?
That night, Donald Trump won the presidency. There is no way to describe the exact equivalent of fear that raced through me. The cliche stones that threw themselves at the walls of my stomach, pressing me to the ground. Defeated. Not just Hillary Clinton. Not just the Democratic Party. But the citizens of the United States. We were defeated that night like we never had been before. We showed, somehow, that we are a country full of racists, bigots, and hateful people.
I had faith in this country. Perhaps not very much, but I didn’t believe this possible. My generation of people – 18 to 25 year old voters – elected Hillary Clinton. Not only that, but so did the popular vote. We voted her in. But our system isn’t simple enough.
I am embarrassed. I am angry. And I will not step down.
I refuse to bow down to those saying that love is the most important thing right now. Yes, I believe love is important. I believe we should always love, but right now, we cannot be silenced by the bullies. We cannot just love. We cannot afford it. We cannot let ourselves be crushed into compliance just because we like the idea of loving everyone. We cannot cop out.
The reason this election is not like ones before, not like every other election, is because when other elections have been lost, nobody has been utterly terrified. Nobody has thought their life might be at risk. We’ve had disappointing presidents, we’ve had presidents that have made us angry, or done the wrong thing. But we just elected a man that puts the lives and well being of humans in peril. I do not believe that the right reaction to this is to say “Even if you voted for Trump, I love you.” I do not appreciate being tagged in pictures of flowers telling me to “Let it go.” I do not think, when people in my school say “Go back to Mexico!” that we should laugh at it.

To quote the Dixie Chicks, I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down, I’m still mad as hell.

Abortion.
Immigrant rights.
People of Color.
Women’s rights.
Climate Change.
LGBTQ+ rights.
Foreign relations.
Gun Control.
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Life Bird

 

Natty Abrahams taps at a screen. A tall boy stands next to him, taut and silent. Seconds later, in ferocious response, a tiny yellow bird flings itself out of the bushes onto a branch. We’re in a forest filled with stilt grass and wineberries somewhere along the edge of West Virginia, about seventy miles from their homes and four thousand from mine. Throwing his head back, the bird’s beak opens in a picture-perfect curve, breast thrumming he calls shrill and loud. P’chee p’chee p’chee. The grass beneath him sways, just feet away it tickles across our legs. Wings beat and he’s above us, downy feathers blending like tempera to green. A delicate swirl of yellow swerves around his sharp eyes. The eyes of my companions would be indistinguishable from that of the little warbler we stand and watch; bright, disbelieving and frantic. They are sixteen, avid birders and best friends. Sam is blond, six feet tall and thin enough to hide completely behind a young poplar. Natty has brown hair and is yet to top five feet. They bounce along the trail in ill matched strides.

Sam’s arms swing wildly at his sides “Oh my god,” he says three times, then again, creating his own mnemonic call. He flips through pictures on his camera, whistling at each one fondly. Binoculars bounce on Natty’s chest, his eyes swivel from side to side, in search of a cerulean warbler, the true reason we’ve been out birding this morning. He jumps at every flash of blue, then stomps the ground growling “indigo bunting.” I think the indigo buntings are beautiful, but apparently they’re too common this morning. I wouldn’t know, I’m used to grey jays and ravens.

Common wood nymphs turn to swallowtails and wineberries to thistles as we near the field. My shoes are soaked through with a cocktail of last night’s rain and this morning’s dew. “Oh my god oh my god” Sam’s eyes are wide and he grins with his tongue caught between his teeth. I could look back and wonder how someone so alive could ever live anywhere but the forest. Perhaps I did wonder this. Or perhaps I saw him for the first time here, in the woods, the real Sam. The person he hoped he could be for everyone but that somehow got shrouded out by the shadows of lockers and hallways, the Virginia skyscrapers that don’t even reach the flattened bases of the clouds. Perhaps it was the bird I was seeing. A life bird of my own, if I were to keep a list the way he does.

At night Sam stands in the middle of the field, in the dark. He talks quietly, I’m not sure if I am supposed to hear what he says. He’s wondering about us as he star gazes, the people who are eagerly willing, craving, desiring, needing to push everything aside to admire the corners of the earth that haven’t yet been crisscrossed with highways and cell signals. He thinks maybe everyone gets a little bit excited about birds and butterflies, they just don’t know it yet.

Their excitement makes my heart race and I can’t help but be alert to the sudden movements among the trees and bushes. Just as a cold, their passion is infectious and I’ve caught it. Somehow from one moment to the next I have been refreshed as a child to the secrets of the wild. I dread to think if I had been alone or in any other company, how I may have missed the way this little bird brought life back to my eyes. Perhaps it wasn’t the bird at all but these other two minds, so unashamed in their awe. So raw and brimming from a coincidental meeting with a tiny wild creature.

I am not sure where it comes from, passion. The human tendency to become so deeply attached and intrigued with some detail of this huge universe. There is enough fervor and spirit in it to drive us all mad with determination. Some of us are too afraid to embrace it, but just now, I see it live and blossom with the petals of a flower more elaborate and delicate than the human brain could ever hope to capture. The humid air holds all of our heartbeats, washes across the ashen wings of the floating woodnymphs and beats slowly against the dewy bark of the canopy trunks. Tapping the screen under the words Kentucky Warbler, Natty’s recording plays its rhythmic trill like a resounding wire, p’chee p’chee p’chee. The bird returns the call one last time to guilty smiles.

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Kentucky Warbler, 2016 Photo by Sam Simon 

Open Letter to the National Honor Society

While NHS is a service based club, I can’t help but have a sour taste in my mouth about how the service is all for personal gain. I realize that the intentions are completely good, but I would prefer to spend my time volunteering for the sake of others rather than for recognition on my resume. In order to be an NHS member, we are required a certain number of hours in our own individual service projects. I should like to think that my motivation to volunteer overcomes my need to fill out a time sheet. It feels to me that the environment of NHS is all about being exclusive and honestly it feels elitist.

Looking down on people and assuming they don’t have as much potential in their life just because they don’t have the right GPA is not something that I feel morally comfortable with. Because of this general mentality, that I have subconsciously internalized, I worry that because I am resigning, my fellow students will think I am not good enough or not smart enough, that I got “booted”. I have a 4.0, but that shouldn’t make me any more qualified to succeed in my high school career than any other student. Nor in college, nor beyond.

I am an Ignition Mentor, an active member of Model UN, GSA and International Club, and as extracurricular activities and projects, I value these because I feel that I am learning, contributing and welcome. As a member of NHS I have not felt welcomed or valued as an individual. The respect that my fellow members have shown for each other feels very selective, and when it comes down to it, that is not something I would like to be a part of.

I came across a picture the other day upon which were the words “We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.” And I have decided that the model from which I would like to lead my life is along those lines.

Service, Scholarship, Leadership, Character. I acknowledge that for some, NHS can fulfill these things, but for me, it does not. I will continue to volunteer my time with the sole purpose of helping others, I will continue to work hard and be fully engaged in my own education, I will strive to be an open minded leader and to be the most compassionate person I can be, knowing that there is always more to learn and everyone has something to teach. I will proudly graduate without the white stole.

With all due respect, I would like to offer my resignation from the National Honor Society.
                                    Sincerely,
                                           Addie Willsrud

On This Very Path in the Woods

Your hair was damp with pond water
It streamed as the skin of a salamander to the tips
And fell through the darkness, weighing fabric black
Like the heaviness of the night’s piercing stars,
Standing here in leaf-dappled sunlight haunts dully.                    
The gravel, tight on your soles,
Toes aching from last night’s stubbing upon dark-hidden roots,
You listen to the vibrance of the green moss,
As you curse bravery in tune to their racing hearts.

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Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps this will go in the “About Me” section. Maybe not. I don’t know. I don’t know if I care. It’s whatever.

My name is Addie.
And to tell you the truth, writing anything autobiographical makes me really dislike myself. In real life, I’m ok. I’m kinda like this big art project that just needs to be refined. Some erasing, some shading, a little bit of elaboration, I just need work. It’s kind of one of those things where you see a little bit of potential, so you go ahead and invest a little bit of hope. Slowly, bit by bit. I’m not this immediate masterpiece. I keep putting myself aside, picking myself back up — one of those art projects. Though I myself am not much to show for it, I do want to be able to call myself an artist.
I’ve succeeded in making myself sound like a really optimistic person, and in all honesty, I’m a damn fool. It depends on the day, it depends on the minute. I am highly subject to alter my outlook on life quite often.
I really don’t know how to introduce myself. When I am asked to say something about myself, I draw a blank. Not just a “but I am not an interesting enough person” sort of blank, but a full on “who the hell am I” blank. And it’s not like I don’t know, it’s just that I’m always a little different. And really, I’m constantly learning about myself. I mean, to be fair, we probably all are. Nah scratch that, we definitely all are. But that’s beside the point.
I want to travel. All the time, the need to travel is constant. It itches under my skin and pulls at my hair like wind and seaspray. Yet I am always sad to leave home. Despite what some may think, I do love it here. And while “the oldest farm kid” isn’t an identity I want to be labeled with all the time, it’s something that is part of me. Perhaps that is what it is. I am an old car covered in stickers – some fall off, some stay on, I always  get new ones at  little gas stations I pull into, in every big glittering city with it’s garbage-filled gutters. I could come up with a million metaphors for who I am, but nobody will ever know, and there’s something really thrilling about that. I can be anything. So I’ll go on painting, dabbing ink over my skin, I’ll be me, and that’s pretty cool. Or something. IMG_3106 - Copy