From Doorknobs and Vinyl, Towards Light in Dark Places!
Map By Mark Ashkenazi
Where are you going? What’s the next destination in the never-ending and kaleidoscopic map of your life? High school marks a dot on the map, but quickly, within a fraction of a second, it merges back into a sinuous line, leading towards the next point on the map: college, perhaps. A step closer to your career, a promotion that keeps you moving forward to the next milestone of your “success.” Keep your foot on the gas, don’t stop until you reach the next big marker of your life, until your success shines so brightly it is impenetrable, until everyone is blinded by its magnitude. After all, your identity is rooted in it. “What are you doing?” not “Who are you becoming?” They only see where you’re going, waiting eagerly for the next destination, never looking back at where you’re from, at the things you’ve gathered and left behind. They don’t see that woven within each route are the intricacies of who you are, the simple yet significant pieces that are the compass guiding you towards new places.
Just as-- if not more important--than the places you’re moving towards are the ones you’ve come from. They’re not just confined to tangible locations on a map. Rather, they are conversations, clothespins, citrus. Innumerable fragments of your experiences that live inside you. They are the words written in George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From”: “I am from clothespins/ from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride/ I am from the dirt under the back porch. /(Black, glistening it tasted like beets.)/ I am from the forsythia bush,/ the Dutch elm/ whose long gone limbs I remember/ as if they were my own.”
With simplicity and intentionality, her words are a reminder of the importance of looking back, of remembering our origins. But each stanza is also a piercing admonition to look deeper than just literal places.
When I first read this poem in the context of my high school English class I was taken aback. I had no grid for looking back at places that weren’t objective, that couldn’t be drawn on a map and circled 5 times in red ink. I blamed it partly on society, which had always told me that “where are you from?” meant one of two things: “where do you live?” or “what is your culture or ancestry?” How many times had someone asked me where I was from and I’d only ever considered the name of my city or my ethnicity? And sure, culture is a step up from literal places; it can speak a lot about shared values and identity. But I believe Lyon’s words tell us it is still not microscopic enough, it only brushes the surface of who we are. And unless the conversation continues past “Well, my mom is Chinese and my dad is white...” it is dangerously left subject to someone else’s knowledge, assumptions, or stereotypes.
So when my teacher assigned us to write our own “Where I’m From” poem the next day, I found myself flustered. I was lost looking back at such a vast piece of my life, something that is perpetually changing and developing, even as I move forward. Where do you even begin when there are so many memories swimming in the pool of your subconscious? It was like walking on a tightrope to think deeply about where I came from, but not so metaphorically that my words might fall off the edge and lose their meaning. But, like those scenes in coming-of-age films when the protagonist finally falls into the rhythm of their life, I found the words to express where I was from:
I am from vinyl,
From fashion books and art supplies
Scattered across the dining room table.
I am from door knobs,
Worn-down from the coming and going,
Losing shine- gaining memories.
I am from the citrus tree,
Its golden pulp sparkling in the sunlight
One squeeze into many drops of summer
I am from Thrifty ice cream and bedtime fiction,
I am from the 6-string strummers,
And the ivory players,
From Rice noodle soup and strawberry rhubarb pie
From “do your best” to “be yourself.”
I’m from He is my strength and refuge
With hands raised up high,
Tears of healing and hope,
And prayer during morning car rides.
I am from exclusion,
the kind that led my great grandfather to travel east
Leaving some behind
I am where east meets west
Where hazy New York sunrises turn into bright California sunsets
And winter coats turn into golden coasts
Though my words mirror the structure of Lyon’s poem, their meaning paints a unique portrait of who I am and what I am becoming. And while someone might also register with vinyl or thrifty ice-cream, it is what these words mean to me that sets me apart and reminds me to shift my focus away from just moving forward. These words ignore the societal pressure to slam my foot on the gas, to never stop and never look back, and instead encourage me to press on the brake, slow down, and remember my roots.
When a few days later I was given a follow-up assignment to write a poem titled “Where I’m Going,” I had to stray from Lyon’s words and use mine to forge a future for myself. But this time, when I was asked where I was going, it felt different than the banalities that had weighed me down so much before. The societal pressure of reaching for unattainable “success” was no longer the end destination of my route. Remembering where I came from, the places that can’t be charted and pinpointed on a map, gave me a unique set of coordinates for where I was headed. I found It wasn’t hard to string together the words that encapsulated where I was going, because I had the words of where I was from to guide me there.
Where I’m going, rivers run through vibrant-colored towns,
Brilliant reflections of the night sky fill the water
With an endless pool of constellations
In which I can cast my dreams upon
Where I’m headed,
I will inspire others and show them they are loved.
I will strive to be salt and light in dark places.
And I will always remember the blessings I’ve been given.
I’m going where the streets have no name,
Where tears will be wiped from every face,
And we will all be clothed in peace and new life.
In the scope of it all, it took a high school English project for me to learn that in order to know where you’re going, you have to first know where you’re from. Where you’re really from. Not just the city you grew up in (although that’s important too), but the intricacies of what make up who you are and what you're becoming. And you must carry these things with you as you get there, so that even if you have to reroute, you hold on to who you are.
Now when someone asks me where I’m from or where I’m going, I will scratch the conventional response I once had, because “I am from doorknobs and vinyl, going towards light in dark places.”
Written by Kyrie Varieur