April 19, 2018

LIEBERMAN | What We Leave Behind

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It always comes on a day when everyone’s busy, not hectic busy, but dredging through the week busy. It always comes on a day when I have a lot of objectively important things to be doing. Today, it’s an assignment in the archives, and I’m obsessing over these old, crinkly papers that are tied up in white thread and then covered in younger, crinkly paper. I’ve spent hours staring at cursive writing I know that I have no chance of deciphering. I’m trying to find what was left: an inventory. Sometimes I’ll come across one, a list of his leather shoes and brass buttons, but then the rest of the papers forget to disclose how he died, or who his children were, or if he changed his name. It brings up so many questions for me, like what will the objects I create during my life lead people to believe about me after my death? What can I find among these lists and numbers? Can I build a whole life? One moment it feels like the most interesting thing I’ve ever done and the next moment it feels like an absolutely fruitless task.

And, so, I take break, find an essay by Junot Díaz in the New Yorker titled, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” to read. Díaz got his MFA at Cornell, but I heard he kind of disappointed with his experience here. That makes me feel even more close to him; I don’t connect with exceedingly prideful alumni in the same way that I don’t connect with exceedingly prideful nationalists; I’ve always found sincere criticism and suggestions for improvement to be a better gauge for how someone cares for their institution. I love the way Díaz writes. I love the way he shakes out a story like holding two corners of a bed sheet. I love that I knew what this was about, and I knew how it was going to feel, before he even said the word “rape.” He said it in Spanish first.

Díaz traced the way trauma can reverberate throughout a body and throughout a life: how it becomes both the cause and the outcome of everything that happens after. His honesty was the kind of valiant vulnerability that made my hands shake — I didn’t know if I should applaud or cover my face and cry.

I can’t pull apart the pieces of myself that are still reeling from trauma and the pieces of myself that I was born with. I try to imagine my inventory, in some virtual archive in the far distant future. I don’t know what pieces of me are becoming the plot line in this story. Some days, one moment feels like the all-defining part of who I am and others I can barely remember it — like a nightmare from a few weeks ago.

And then, on a day where everyone is bored and busy, and I have an assignment in the archives, I read something that makes me feel fully everything that has ever happened to me. It hurts so badly; it makes me want to crawl out of my skin, return to a place where I was never ransacked with guilt or touched by trauma. But (and this is the large and all important “but,” the “but” that puts Junot Díaz’s essay in my inventory), it is also this rawness that make me want to be better: a better writer, a better friend, a better lover.

Díaz has written pieces that made me laugh incredulously, or feel only half present in my real life (and half present in his work) for the following few days, or mistrust myself and the men around me. But (another important “but”), this piece on trauma reached out of a screen to touch the hairs raising on the hands of its readers, and it gave us the hard truth that assures us, once and for all, that from all the fallout that cascades from trauma, maybe the most valuable is a connection to the humanness of those around us: the unfaltering belief in the existence of another person’s previous pain, and strength, and failure. Our increased sensitivity, from the way the world has been to us, helps us be more cognizant to the suffering of others. We feel their pain like we feel their touch. Díaz felt it with a stranger at his reading, and we all begin to feel it with him as we hear his story and find traces of ourselves — little remembrances — in its pieces and parts.

To me, this is what we leave behind in a life, aside from our bound notebooks or brass buttons, we leave a rippling imprint on those that we are brave enough to be vulnerable with. Honesty can leave us both feeling gapingly breathless and assuredly un-alone: more whole despite all the ways we feel we have been stolen from ourselves. Talking about trauma, and opening this door for connection, and sharing, and rawness after all the awfulness, feels like the most important thing I could ever do; it feels like what I want to leave in my inventory.

Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.