I live in extremes. People laugh when I say that, they smile at me as if they know what I mean. “You go from zero to 60. But you got that from me.” My mother has said to me. But she’s wrong, I’m not like her. My intensity is drug induced. My personality is an amplification of the girl who is and the Dexmethylphenidate that turns my brain into a machine. My body is the catalyst for the drug and my mind is ever-changing under its influence. It may seem like a small change, the dosage of Ritalin that I am taking, but those drugs sit inside my head. They change the version of myself that I get to show. They change my perception and, therefore, they change everything about who I am. My doctor says that my heart beats too fast now.
I am a being that was always meant to binge and purge. Physically. Spiritually. I drink coffee and booze and take more Ritalin until I forget that is who I am. Yet, I am a firm believer that we are inescapably ourselves all the time, the fakeness of our facades just reveals more about the person that is within. We may be revealed to ourselves occasionally by the strong voice of another, someone who first reveals themselves to us. This week, I found that spiritual snake-charmer in the words of Patti Smith. She wrote an article for The New Yorker in December where she discussed her experience while honoring Bob Dylan at The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. The show, where she stumbled over a section and then had to restart, went viral because of the raw emotion that her performance depicted. I read the article and then watched her portion of the ceremony through the linked video. The song made me weep. It made me weep not for the person that I am, it’s too late for her—the currents of life are moving too strongly for me to figure out who she is now—but for the person that I was. A girl who did not have the emotional walls to protect herself from the extremes that pick her up and drop her faster than the sun rises and sets.
It was junior year of high school and my English class had just finished reading the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. I bring up this story in creative writing workshops all the time, I mention it at least twice a semester. I’ve always thought that my obsession with this story was due to Oates’ masterful ability to craft her characters and construct dialogue that drags her audience right into the scene. But I was wrong. I watched Patti Smith sing her rendition of Bob Dylan’s song at The Nobel Prize Ceremony and I was struck with an image of myself. I was sitting in my high school class, having just finished Oates’ story, and my English teacher played “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan. I remember being startled by the emotional upheaval that came from the song’s chorus, “It’s all over now, baby blue. It’s all over now, baby blue.” I asked for a record player for my birthday the following month. The machine that my parents bought me didn’t have any speakers, so I borrowed an old pair from a friend who was a theater techy. His speakers didn’t let you adjust the volume and the sound was low, if I wanted to hear the music I had to lie on the floor with my head at eye level with the machine. That worked just fine for me. The bulimia that dictated my junior year was so rampant and uncontrollable that I would eat a gallon of ice cream, vomit it all up, and then curl up in a ball next to the record player and let the pain from my stomach hit me in waves. I would turn on Dylan and wait for the harmonica to play him on. “You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last/ But whatever you wish to keep you better grab it fast.”
Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” as a tribute to Dylan at The Nobel Prize Ceremony. The song starts with the lyrics, “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?/ Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?” I did not make the connection between the beginning of the song and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which uses that line almost verbatim (I was immersed in Smith’s singing and had not read Oates’ story in years.) After re-reading Oates’ piece, the irony of my fascination with a story of that name, just two weeks before the end of my college career, was no longer lost on me. I read through the story, still beautiful, but no longer as poignant as I had remembered. It was Dylan who had emotionally held me in that place in my life. It was Oates who was the catalyst for that discovery.
I had a friend in high school with eyes like the sun. Her mixed-raced heritage produced irises that started brown then expanded to amber, green, and blue. I would try to look into these eyes when she held me against the bathroom wall in our friend’s pool house, her mouth desperately grappling for my own. I used to write poetry about the colors in her gaze. I would stay awake at night during our sleepovers and write about the sun and how it touched me with flashing heat. I think she liked the attention.
These images of myself are only loosely connected. They were produced within the lifetime of a single person, but outside of that understanding they are just fragments. Before this, I have not been able to make the connection between these parts of myself because they are the result of the ups and downs of my personhood. When Smith wrote in her New Yorker article, “And all the things I have seen and experienced and remember will be within me, and the remorse I had felt so heavily will joyfully meld with all other moments,” I realized that I cannot hide these parts of myself from each other any longer. I am not a person divided, but a person loosely conjoined. I am a string of moments that flap together in a wind produced by the great expanse of my future and past.
Oates’ story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” ends with “My sweet little blue-eyed girl.” I wonder who would say that to me. I loved a boy in college that I was not allowed to love. He held me under the artificial, painted stars of Grand Central Station once, and then I moved past him into the depth of the train station and beyond. I loved a girl in college who could not love me back. Her eyes were deep and brown, perfectly framed by her tan face. These are the people that I imagine speaking to me. But they did not stay, and I may not have kept them. There is no violence in my connection with them, and that is what I have come to expect. I expect it because I receive it from myself. Therefore, I am alone with myself when I am being called “little blue-eyed girl.” I look at the speaker who calls to me and I do not know who that person is or where they want to take me.
“My sweet little blue-eyed girl,” he said in a half-sung sigh that had nothing to do with her brown eyes but was taken up just the same by the vast sunlit reaches of the land behind him and on all sides of him—so much land that Connie had never seen before and did not recognize except to know that she was going to it.