March 28, 2010


It is strange, but I think that in removing myself from a familiar place and familiar people and familiar life I had to relearn myself. Does that make sense? I think that when I was surrounded by people and places and school and job I had all of these things pressing me together; all of those things filled in all the space around me and held all the little pieces of me in place, like water in a glass, or a lake in its shorelines. And when all of those things were gone I felt myself spreading out all over the place--diffusing into the air that used to be taken up by "my life." It was frightening. Without people there to tell me things about myself or to interact with, and without a schedule to act as the daily outline to my existence, it got confusing for a little while. I had never lived by myself before, and especially not somewhere alien. In Santa Cruz I could have still seen friends or gone to Pergolesi or had a beer at the Poet, but here the only person I regularly saw was R.C. and half the time I didn't see him. I just heard him in the garage, picking up the trash, or heard the lawnmower in the mornings before I woke up. In the first months I was here, the sound of the garage door opening or his car rumbling up the drive was absurdly comforting.

For whatever reason I didn't try to fill up all the space again. I could have taken art classes or tried, really tried to meet people. But I didn't. I left the air open, and I'm glad of it now. Because it forced me to learn how to collect all the little pieces of myself on my own, without anyone pressing in about me. I think it was a necessary thing, since I had already felt diffuse upon arriving here. It was impossible not to. My big job, my most life-defining and longest lasting job had just been ended. I wasn't anyone's big sister anymore. My therapist used to have me list things I knew about myself so that I could collect all the pieces on weeks I was feeling particularly insubstantial, like smoke. My name is Carolyn and I like to make things with my hands, be it food or art or forts or messes. My name is Carolyn and I like to wear cotton. My name is Carolyn and my hands shake. My name is Carolyn and I'm lactose intolerant. On and on. But it wasn't quite enough to combat the uneasiness of no longer being able to say, My name is Carolyn and I am Laura's big sister. I could say it, but it wouldn't have been the same thing anymore.

So, in being here I have learned who Carolyn is. I don't have to make lists to remind myself. I can sit in the silence for hours, days, and not feel little pieces of myself floating off somewhere. I feel substantial. We spend so much time in the company of people who laugh at our jokes (hopefully) and remember things about our lives and share our sadnesses that I think we are prone to forgetting how to laugh at our own jokes, without anyone to laugh with us, or to remember things about our own lives, without anyone to ask us questions about our pasts, and to know our sadnesses, without anyone to say to us, How sad. Not that these aren't all wonderful things to have in friends, and I do miss my friends and their laughter and lives and sadnesses. But I think I will be a better friend to them for having missed them.

March 21, 2010


It occurred to me, quite out of nowhere, that at some point, life permitting, my life will be thrown out of balance. In my mid forties I will suddenly wake up and realize that Laura has been dead for more years of my life than she has been alive. I am bothered by this. It unnerves me. Because right now, as I am about to turn twenty-four, Laura's effect on my life can still be accurately quantified. She has been present for all but five or so years of my life. It seems silly to get upset about something that is really only a measurement--a symptom of the much greater grief that is her loss. Once, about a year after that September, I called my parents' house and left a voicemail. I said, Hi parents, it's Carolyn. After I hung up the phone I realized something new. I realized that there was no longer any earthly reason for me to identify myself. They are my parents, and I am the daughter. No confusion. I catch myself sometimes, still about to differentiate myself from a person who doesn't exist. It is unfair, grief. You get a handle on it and you learn to live with a certain level of daily pain, but every once and a while something comes flying forth and shakes you. Reminds you that while you may have learned to live with the knowledge of a death, and no longer wake having forgotten, it is still wrong. It is still not the way things were supposed to be. Your life has been irreparably altered, and no amount of practice makes perfect.

March 20, 2010

Jonquil Days

Around here, people refer to daffodils as jonquils, a term I had never heard until I moved here. Jonquils are coming up everywhere here; on the island there are whole yards and fields studded with the long green leaves and nodding yellow buds. The weather has been absurdly beautiful, and it is supposed to last. I've been spending several hours a day on my bicycle, visiting parts of the island I haven't ventured into since the fall. I think of the island as divided into two halves: Grimstead P.O. and Gwynn P.O. These post offices are ridiculously close to one another (probably about a mile) but somehow manage to stay open. Post offices are second only to churches in commonality in Mathews County. I like to think that there is some kind of Grimstead vs. Gwynn thing at work. The Grimstead P.O. shares its side of the island with the Seabreeze (the only island eatery), the ruined Islander motel, Island Sea Food, the Narrows Marina, the ruined Callis wharf, Roz's Island Market, and the only bridge to the mainland. For this reason I think of Grimstead as the 'town" side. The Gwynn side is less thickly populated and claims only the RV resort, the Baptist church, and the Gwynn's Island Museum (a wonder in of itself) as its commercial attraction. I think there may be a come-here/from-here dynamic at work as well.

Anyway, today I made a little jaunt past Grimstead P.O. into long unvisited territory, which was pleasant, despite being chased by several dogs. People are a lot less prone to wave on that side of the island, but that may just be evidence of my infrequent visits to it. The great event of the bike ride was my encounter with two awkward boys near the cemetery (about halfway between Gwynn and Grimstead). They were holding sticks (why do all the boys around here arm themselves?) and as I rode by on my way they one at a time chimed "Hi Bike Lady" and waved. Bike Lady? And on my way back past the cemetery, they were still there. This time they said in unison, "Bye Bike Lady." I smiled and waved, all the while wondering if perchance this is my island moniker. It may seem crazy, but I was sort of excited by this. I am Carolyn, resident of Gwynn's Island, known more commonly as.... Bike Lady.

All in all it has been an excellent week, and a first rate return from California. I am in love with this place. The smell off of the water and the sounds of the boats and the sight of a raised hand above the steering wheel: these things are things that I love. The effect that this island had on my childhood is only reenforced by my time here. I hope that every person should have the opportunity to live in a place that they irrationally, desperately adore--a place without which they would not be the person that they are. This evening I'm off to a documentary showing on the third floor of a brick building in downtown Mathews. My grandmother knows the place; in her youth it was a roller rink, and she says she remembers the wood floors that still run the length of this great long room. The room is still ringed with the hand holds of the roller rink, and as I sit there in the dark I think of my grandmother grabbing hold, young as I am now, laughing on wobbly legs.

March 17, 2010

Cloud Chaser

Last week I returned to Virginia to find that spring has finally arrived. This morning I woke to the sound of the osprey cackling next door, and practically vaulted from the bed. I stood on my balcony watching as they wheeled around overhead, in a sky as blue and clear as summer. Daffodils are erupting from yards all over the island, though the most magnificent display probably belongs to my neighbors, the Callis'. In the afternoon great dark rain clouds come rolling across the water to drench the island. The ditches are full of green algae and the marshes that lay so undisturbed all winter are suddenly teeming with minnows. I open all the windows to fill the house with new air and sit on the porch in the late afternoon, watching the birds dance around each other in the trees.

This probably all sounds a little absurd, but after this winter I feel entitled to romanticize the heck out of spring. The islanders seem to feel similarly; they've all emerged suddenly to begin mowing their lawns and shining their landlocked fishing boats, though it will probably be a while before either of these things are truly necessary. The little boys who live on Gumthicket were out yesterday, all armed with spears made of driftwood, attempting to lance minnows in the marsh along the road. As I road by they all posed menacingly above the water, letting their spears fly into the brackish water with warrior cries. I visit the lanes left unvisited in the cold months, biking slowly so as to note any changes in this island I have come to know so well. Great swaths of little blue flowers and lime-green moss have erupted in the greening lawns on Gwynnsville, like rashes. The pines on the bayside of the island lean precariously, battered sideways by the high winds of February. The gnomes are gone, and the interior of the Gwynn post office is decorated for St. Patrick's Day.

My favorite thing about spring thusfar is that the maples glow. I have never seen this before. Their branches are tipped in little bursts of buds colored bright orange or red, and when the sun is low the light makes the trees look like they're on fire. At a distance, whole stands of forest will appear to be covered in a strange red blossoming. In a month I'd imagine these red buds will explode into clusters of bright green leaves. For now, I will enjoy this unexpected spring display.

March 6, 2010


It is strange to be in California, so warm and green and peopled. My attachment to this place seems to have less to do with the place than with my parents, who are my only real people connections to Fremont at this point. Most of the people I knew here have left, or are now strangers. I have affection for some things: the sight of the creek I jumped every morning to get to school, or the incredibly small high schoolers running track, or the sound of the drum line practicing in the parking lot in the afternoon. I recognize this place, though with my eyes more so than my heart. It is different than Virginia in that way. I do not love this house; too much happened here between my childhood's end and now, if this is even adulthood. There are so many traffic lights and stop signs in this place, constant punctuation. Interruptions to my thoughts or my movements. Everyone is going somewhere, and they are on a schedule, and I can see why I had road rage by the time I left California, a condition that has now totally disappeared in my time in Virginia. I told my father, By the time you get stuck behind your fifth tractor you're not so upset by it anymore. The water smells strange, and my parents' house feels small, and full of things. People sound unnerving, their voices unfamiliar or the cadence of their speech alien. I know it sounds ridiculous to claim that I have become so acclimated to another place in so little time as seven months, but I think that more than anything I am unused to being so surrounded by anyone, and the voices of people I do not know surprise me. Everything is fast, and I realize that I have been living slowly.

I have already consumed Chinese food, Afghan food, and Vietnamese food, and am awaiting the incoming digestive crisis. All delicious, all familiar. The variety of everything is startling, and while I often find myself wishing for all these things while I am on my island, I am glad of their absence in some way. It helps to differentiate eras of my life, I think, these distinctions. I can't help but associate California with my before life. My life as I lived it and thought about it before Laura died. It is sad, but for me, California belongs to Laura now. Maybe that is why I left. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to make new memories here, so colored is this place. I did the right thing in leaving. I never know that more clearly than when I visit, necessary as it may be to visit my parents and my friends and acknowledge my life here before I left it. In my first entry I included a part of a poem that once spoke to me. I do not think I have ever understood as fully as I do now. I see this place, this Californian place, and I see it now more clearly than I ever had in living here. I see the town I grew up in, and the room I slept in, and the streets I walked. And, I think I see the person I was before this happened, and I begin to better understand myself, and who I want to be now, after.

My friend, a painter, blacks over his lines
and packets his pad:
"We never see a place," he says,
"Until we leave it behind." Yes,
and by then it has become someplace else.

-Nicholas Christopher, Crossing the Equator