Today’s post presents a short piece by VCS student Audrey Nicolaides that she wrote for my senior essay workshop, a class that deals with the essay as a distinct literary form and also prepares students to write their final VCS thesis paper. (You can read a little more about it in this post from 2011.)
Throughout the semester, I give my students a series of short writing assignments that ask them to address a specific topic from their own perspective. The assignment prompts are often fairly open-ended, and have dealt with both art and non-art subjects. A few weeks ago, I asked the class to write about something from outside the art world that’s had a profound influence on their artistic practice. This was Audrey’s response. I’m very glad that she agreed to let me share it here.
I was raised in a house where the unsaid has its own seat at the dinner table. From the torpid calm of my suburban childhood, I remember mostly the incredible weight of silence, the thickness of it, so thick it could be knifed. I had a lonely childhood, spent mostly alone with my parents. My half-sister visited us once a month but the twelve years age gap extended like a gulf between us and we remained strangers to each other. I don’t think any of us were happy, except the dog maybe, certainly not my mother whose neurosis punctuated our lives like a despot. I learned to suppress my feelings at a very early age to defend myself against her crippling unhappiness, which would periodically burst out of her in torrents of angry words and slammed doors, before deflating just as suddenly as it had started. Sometimes, my father tried to appease her but mostly he remained silent, unflinching, waiting for the storm to pass while pouring himself another glass. I knew nothing but silence and the dull ache of this ordinary form of violence. I can still hear her shouting, slicing through the air, wrecking havoc on the false equilibrium of our house, littering the floor with broken eggshells. I used to be scared of her until I learned how to retreat inside myself.
I’ve had enough, I cans see it and almost know that there is no one there to help you, there is no one there to hold you, let it go. I’ve felt enough, can’t really feel it anymore. And I know I’m closing off . I lost the ability to speak, or maybe I never had it; I progressively detached myself from everyone and everything around me. I was alone but not lonely, I was, and still am, an outsider. The moon is closer to the sun than I am to anyone . I used to spend long hours in our attic, looking outside the roof window at the boundless sky and the clouds rolling. Watching the glistening leaves of our neighbor’s tree I swore to myself, over and over again, that I would get out of there. My parents are masterworks of repression and I am a stone: hard grey, the heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape, the earthiest smell, the hollowest tone . Desiccated by my family dynamics and the ossified conventions of the French upper-middle class, it would have been so easy for me to yield to complacency, lowered expectations and unfulfilled dreams. I could have become, like most people, a minor work of depression. I only survived because I found other rocks to wreck my heart upon.
And I think I believe that if stones could dream, they would dream of being laid side by side, piece by piece, and turned into a castle for some towering queen they’re unable to know .
Singer-songwriters taught me how to speak, how to articulate myself in the confine of privacy. If I told you the truth you wouldn’t like what I said. I almost believed I was dead . I was able to dissociate my public life from my inner life, and if in the real world I talked about studying political science and a career in the high administration, in my head I was leaving on a quest. If you love me let me leave in peace, please understand that the black sheep can wear the Golden Fleece and hold the winning hand . How I wish I could have said that; but my parents neither understand English nor poetry. I realized in the midst of my teenage melancholy that I could either let life wash over me until nothing remained but a shiny dead pebble or flee. I fled. Packed and all eyes turned in, no one to see on the quay, no one waving for me, just the shoreline receding. Ticket in my hand and thinking wish I didn’t hand it in . Singer-songwriters opened a space, a window overlooking a private world that allowed me to survive within the suffocating walls of my house. They planted seeds on the arid mountainsides of my inner landscape and taught me how to cultivate it, how to magnify the everyday and bear the weight of it. They have stirred in me a desire for beauty and a craving for the ever more. Listening to their songs is like being born into the world, blithe with the pain of soaked lungs learning how to breathe. Mad, they seep through the walls of my fortress; walking the tension between the infinite and the grind of reality, with nothing but their songs, architects of splendor, and their words, finally, woven into mine to describe the reliefs of my private geography.
With the wall where you drew windows overlooking hidden gardens torn apart by jagged mountains climbing up into the air and crumbling down into a fountain where the water waits forever like a quiet distant treasure .
by Audrey Nicolaides
 Okkervil River, “Show Yourself” from I Am Very Far (2011)
 Nada Surf, “80 windows” from The Proximity Effect (1998)
 Okkervil River, “A Stone” from Black Sheep Boy (2005)
 Okkervil River, “A Stone” from Black Sheep Boy (2005)
 Nada Surf, “Killian’s Read” from Let Go (2002)
 Okkervil River, “Black Sheep Boy” from Black Sheep Boy (2005) cover after Tim Hardin
 Okkervil River, “Lost Coastlines” from The Stand ins (2008)
 Okkervil River, “Another Radio Song” from Black Sheep Boy: Appendix (2005)