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Sisters/Mothers/Transcendence photo

My sister is more of a person than I am. She works at a bookshop and wears visually interesting outfits, ties up her blonde ringlets in a tall bun and ambles around our town in clogs. We hear her coming down the stairs, into coffee shops, through doorways. She just ordered a set of Halloween earrings from Etsy and today, she’s wearing the two tiny ghosts.

Her name is Sophia, and the softness and sway of the S sounds in that word embody her sensibility. It’s like her name was made for her to exist. She moves idly but with precision, days completed with seasonally appropriate television shows, books about paganism and witchcraft, and stories of the various people that come into her bookstore.

She has the power of reading many novels without having personal crises on every page, and going to a four-hour-long Renaissance fair and enjoying herself. Her thoughts are clean and shared in clear, smiling phrases. People love her. They love her hair, her smile, her gentleness, her earring collection, her book recommendations, her laughter, and her mind.

I do too.

When I fight with our father, my sister holds the peace. She is the peace. I blush too easily and cry when I’m sick and pine for my mother to hold me, to run her fingers through my hair, kneed her knuckles against my scalp like she’s nursing all that ache stored up there. When my mother is goneshe’s gone a lot these daysmy sister lets me lay with my head in her lap. She runs her nails through my hair and while it’s not quite the same, I almost let myself pretend that she too is my mother. How different are they really, motherhood and sisterhood?

When I think enough about this sort of love, I’m brought to tears by both. If I am not a daughter or a sister first, I am nobody at all.

I think the reason I feel so much is because I’ve finally started paying attention. I look for the connections between nature and love and my thought patterns and experiences. I sort through my emotions like I am sorting through the contents of a treasure box, the ones Poppy used to hide for me and Sophia in Maine. I pay attention to what I want and what I remember and who I miss. I notice what I push away and what I cling onto, sometimes too tightly. I’m aware of what I am grieving and what I have not given myself the time to grieve.

Sophia and I walk in the mornings, by the river. I want to ask up at the silver snow clouds and bundled passersby, does anyone else feel this much about growing up? Anyone at all? Tell me there is someone existing in this frozen world whose heart is weighed down by memories and loss and too much hope, love slipping through the cracks on plastic playscapes, collections of sea glass from the beaches up north, collected by grandmothers, collected by me, abandoned with broken hearts and silent goodbyes, dead grandmothers’s spirits in houses belonging to new families, pages filled with stories never finished, never sold. Half-abandoned, morphed dreams of fame and wealth filtered through maturity and womanhood and dreams of a spouse and a home. Elderly grandparents who tell me their world is folding in on itself, while mine is expanding. Hatred of self, picked-at skin, twisted noses, ugly eyes, all condensed into vanity.

I stare into the mirror for far too long in a half-hearted attempt to trick my brain into recognizing my beauty. As I stare I remember when I used to slap myself across the face as punishment for this existence.

How could I treat myself with such cruelty? I want to ask. How could I torment myself with self-despisal when I am built from the lives of the women I love most? How is that fair?

When I used to hate myself, more than I do now, I didn’t think of these things. I stopped hitting myself when I became too busy with schoolwork and soccer practice and finding a life in the imaginary instead of the real. Every person collects coping mechanisms. When I stutter, I dig my nails into my the softest part of my palm or squeeze my inner thigh between my thumb and pointer finger. These movements, this temporary pain, sometimes gets the words out. My fractured sense of my own life through fantasized worlds, buried in books and worksheets and exams, fends off the stray loathing. It’s a cushion for deep-rooted, unmedicated anxiety and desires to live a different life altogether, one hidden away from the crowds and the shouting and the anger. One that’s a secret.

When I remember my mother and my sister, I push these cushioned pains under my carpet, straighten up. On the brightest days, I force myself to confront the temporary existence I’ve been given. I like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I learned about it in a lecture I attended, the second day I spent at college. The image below is the image I first saw projected on the screen, when I froze in the unairconditioned classroom, my eyes widened in a superficial way.

MatiasEnElMundo / Getty Images


In short, there’s a man watching the projection on the wall of the cave. It’s the silhouette of a bird, flying in a white circle. He thinks it’s beautiful. To him, that is life. That is reality. But there is a man behind him, one hidden from the first man’s perception. This second man holds a bird puppet before a flame. He is controlling the first man’s reality with the image projected via the fire. As I sat in my wooden desk and stared at the professor explaining this allegory, I had only one thought: I want to see the fire.

When I’m feeling too small for the vastness of the world, I bury my feet in the cool earth in fear of movement, of natural progression, of engaging with the fundamental flow of life. I want to grab change by the neck and squeeze until I’m the one suffocating.

When I’m feeling a little bigger, I look around. I keep my eyes open, even when the sunlight hurts.

I’ve been thinking about water recently. How it moves, flows without limits or constraints, changes form with the temperature. It holds us before our births and after our deaths. It is the earth inside of us, surrounding us. It is the universe we put into out bodies, that which leaves.

Mary Oliver wrote in the concluding lines of her poem, “The Summer Day:”

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver has saved my life before. I expect that she will again. And so I wonder: what do I want to do with my temporary existence? There is complexity in simplicity, in a barren, stripped-down life. What I dream of feels unachievablecomplete removal from the common, what is perceived to be normal in this world: the cheap fabrics in shops, the brevity and disconnect of Snapchat, the momentary entertainment of TikTok.

But I am not any better at this removal than anyone else here. I stumble blindly toward truth tied up with falsities, with the images projected onto cave walls.

I nudge my feet deeper into the soil. By living, I mean to look through a window and see the land outside. I mean waking in the silent dusty air of my room and tasting the late December wind. I mean absorbing the minds and ideas and radical thought, overwhelming intellect of the writers and artists who have molded me into myself. I mean looking up at the sky for birds. I mean reaching for what is.

I float toward the imaginary, the depths and care of my dream state. Transcendence is only possible when I let myself be pulled in both directions, as openly as I can. My arms and head stretch toward the limitless, the abundance, my feet covered by the icy ocean. I am everything all at once, and I think that is what it means to live. We are meant to move like water, all interconnected and fluid, gentle and lapping at times, harsh, salt-ridden, rageful at others.

Everything that I wish to become is built from who I am, from the mothers and the sisters who have given me my looks and my name and my loving. Every part of who I am is a reflection of the broken hearts and hopeless dreams and silent work of my women.

When we drift from the normal, we re-align our minds and hearts into a more, joyful, curious, and wonder seeking way of understanding the world. And isn’t this vastnessthis ugly transcendence, this relentless re-alignmentthe very point of being alive?