April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.T. S. Elliot
I recently discovered this quote from T. S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, and it now comes to mind whenever I gaze out the windows at yet another dull grey sky. Sprinklings of acid rain that never actually pours but kind of just lingers, shunning away the sun, forever keeping at bay that warm weather I crave.
April seems to be especially cruel in this specific part of Cambridge.
I had thought those jars of vitamin D supplements and an IV stream of caffeine would keep my dreariness under wraps, until the eventual slivers of sunlight melt away the annual accumulation of dread. But alas, here I am again, trying to put these shadows into words so I can at least attempt to decipher their shapes.
In another April a lifetime ago, I thought for the first time that I was happy. Fragile happiness that I kept within the palms of my hands, afraid that even the calluses between my fingers would bruise its outline. I was a different kind of lost, but at least I knew where I would eventually return to, once I was done living a different life and using up all the joy the universe would allow me to have.
It was a warm spring. Flowers, sunlight, kittens on our rooftop terrace. Carrot cake, bad latte art, even worse margaritas. Biking through half a dozen hutongs for vintage earrings. A 17-year-old teaching me how to bartend. Dancing inside a theater at midnight.
There was a kind of hope back then. Lost but being okay with spinning in circles at the present moment. For it was still spring – there was still time.
And perhaps, among other things, time is what distinguishes that sort of lost with this tangled configuration of life that I attempt to make sense of now. It feels that time is slipping away from my fingers, but I am letting it slip, because I feel nothing for the hours that are passing, as no April days can surpass the ones from back then. Yet simultaneously, I am apprehensive about this passage of time, for what comes after is completely blank. I used to think I would be guided by passion, that I would always follow the brightest and warmest light. But now there are no lights that I can see, just a blank, grey slate. Like stepping into a mass of thick fog but not feeling the expected rush of vapor against your skin, only coldness. Coldness with an occasional sprinkle of acid rain.
Others I know are drafting their farewell posts, an almost-obligatory reflection upon their time here before they move on to more pragmatic endeavors. I thought that I would do the same, yet as my fingers brush the keyboard, the words simply would not flow. It seems that my thoughts about this place have been drained – this place that objectively changed my life for the better yet left me feeling like I could no longer feel.
If I had to conceptualize these past four (five?) years, it would be something like a before and after, with the split in the middle more interesting than the sum of what it fractured. Everything in the ‘before’ was a blur. I was living in a mold, thinking that if I tried hard enough, I could eventually blend into this scene of talent and privilege, be a potted plant in the backdrop of their lovely canvas. I remember joining two dance groups despite my aversion to dancing. But I was a marionette, moving my limbs at the instruction of others, copying those around me as cameras flashed and the audience screamed names that were not mine.
Then I left. And thank god I did.
Fall and winter were full of lights. The blinding ones. The scent of butterscotch-flavored shisha and lychee sunrises served in Erlenmeyer flasks. A field of sunflowers in the middle of the city. Black hair becoming pink.
Spring and summer had a different kind of light, swallowing me in its warmth. Cats running around the courtyard. Theater festivals by the sea. Memories that straddle the border between bliss and sorrow as I think about all the things I cannot hold onto. A family that exists only in Polaroids.
I returned feeling that I had done everything right. Because no matter how ridiculous that marionette doll looked on stage, those crooked steps had somehow taken me to the right destination, where I experienced what it felt like to actually be a part of the canvas. Not just as an element in the background. The art itself.
But what about the ‘after’? I found that I could not hold onto that light, despite all my efforts to preserve that centeredness, looking over my shoulder at the moth on my back, reminding myself not to reverse-metamorphosize. But this place drains you. I feel that I became a ghost in the last two years, drifting from commitment to commitment, leaving only the briefest of impressions, letting connections fade while refusing to forge new ones. When was the last time someone has spoken my name out loud? When was I more than just a passing memory? I didn’t want to be absorbed by my surroundings, but it seems that in my unwillingness to conform I have erased myself from the pages altogether.
When does the ‘after’ become another ‘before’? The after is prolonged, stagnating, suffocating. I miss feeling like I’m living. Or simply just, feeling. I miss allowing myself to be changed without worrying about what I would become. Perhaps this is the sign to leave again (though it’s not like I can stay anymore). Leave and go somewhere far, until I can once again color a piece of myself on the canvas.
My go-to fun fact is that I fantasize about dropping out of school to open a bakery in Norway.
Why Norway? I could never give a satisfactory answer, yet I’ve grown to become fixated on the entirety of Scandinavia, the northern lights and crisp mountains, the top of the World Happiness Report, the liberating sense of solitude.
There’s something deeply alluring about starting afresh, in the middle of nowhere, forging a new identity, connecting threads unburdened by the past. Norway is an escape, the prevailing theme of my daydreams. And it seems that most of my best experiences have come from the need to escape – a pandemic, a dysfunctional family, the Boston winter… By running away, I inadvertently run toward something.
So, for now, perhaps I can only hope that I am once again running towards something. Blindly stumbling down an unbeaten path with no light to follow, simply trying to leave the cold behind, moving my legs until I no longer feel numb. There’s just too much I don’t want to become, too many lives I don’t want to live. And it seems that only by continuing to introduce turbulence into my world am I able to break free from the identities we are forced to embody.
The last time I cried was on August 21st, 2021, sitting in the back of a taxi cab at 3 am, watching Yang Yue wave at me from the window until her outline eventually disappeared into the blurred backdrop of the Beijing smog.
This time, I am waving myself off. No tears. Just my body floating somewhere on Mass Ave, watching the train leave with fragments of my soul that I will learn to piece into something that resembles art.
So catch me somewhere far, attempting to breed lilacs out of dead land.
(Not a goodbye yet. But soon. )