Right before we returned from our study abroad program in South Africa all of the American college students started getting tattoos. We had lived with families in Langa township, grown accustomed to mealie sap for breakfast, learned the click of the Xhosa language, and watched emails to our boyfriends and girlfriends back home build letter by letter in the excruciatingly slow computer lab on the University of Cape Town campus.
We were, in short, not the same people as those who had boarded the airplane in New York City six months earlier. We were different people, maybe not new exactly, but internally rearranged. (For my thoughts about these kinds of programs, read this.)
On the outside, however, we looked the same. Thus the tattoos. It was a way of telegraphing to the world—but especially our family and friends, who we most needed to know—that we were altered. We had been through a thing. We had come out the other side.
I was trying to describe the fog of emotions I’ve been feeling about society/school/life re-opening lately to a friend and realized that it was very similar to that study abroad malaise all those years ago. I’ve been through a thing. We’ll all been through a thing.
Not the same thing, interestingly. Mine was euphoric mindfulness mixed with unfamiliar rage, little girls’ bodies all over me, all the time, starving for solitude, learning to cook and download audio books, falling in love with a hard hike, grief over losses unexpected and expected, alike. Yours might have been skin hunger and take-out, learning to drive and play the ukulele, losing a job, falling out of love with something core. We were not, as it turned out, all in this together.
But we were all in something. And I don’t know about you, but I want us to mark that moment in some way—maybe not with the unimaginative dolphin and butterfly tats of yesteryear, but something, anything, that might make this liminal space feel seen and acknowledged. That might help us say—with out bodies, with our spirits, with our people—wow, we endured. Through isolation and fear and grief, we endured. We honored birth and death in completely new ways. We stayed put. We stayed together. We stayed. We stayed. Not all of us did, but most of us did. We stayed.
As things open up, part of me wants to shout: “Have some God damn respect! Can you see what’s happened here?”
It’s not about physical safety. It’s about something else—reverence. I’m craving a sort of societal deep breath, a collective song of mourning and resurrection, a deep bow to the fact that we held it the f down.
It’s not that I can’t see the light down there at the end of the tunnel (call it herd immunity, call it 2022, call it whatever you want). Today my kid went to school for the first time in over a year in a real classroom with a teacher with a body and came home bouncing. She said it was “better than the beach.” I want her to run into that future full force, to enjoy every second of the visceral life she deserves.
But even as she crossed over the threshold into the school, part of me wanted to freeze the whole scene, to say something that would help her understand how completely awed I am by how she’s adapted. And that she’ll always have this—this year when she planted the doomed loquat and fell in love with multiplication and was mostly shockingly kind to her sister and the cat. The smokey skies and the talk of germs and the learning to ride a bike—it’s all inside of her now. It can’t be seen from the outside, but it’s hers forever.
I guess this is me saying that to her (hi Maya of the future, call me). I guess this is me saying that to myself. I endured. I was mostly shockingly kind. I learned a lot. And it’s inside of me now.
I guess this is me saying that to you, too. You did it. It’s inconceivable what you braved, what you remade, what you longed for, what you held on for. And it’s not exactly over, but it’s changing, and in this liminal moment, as we ascend into the sky, away from the year that altered us, I want you to know that I see how you’re internally rearranged. You’re not the same. You’re even more beautiful.