So I can know myself by Paulina Calistru

There came a time, at dinner with my mother, where I realized that she, too, would die. She would grow old and fragile, shrink and eventually wither away, just like her mother, and her mother’s mother. Just like all the mothers that came before her. It came in the form of a superimposition, a memory from the future, triggered by the sight of veiny fingers grasping for an agitated straw. Her hands reminded me of my Abuela’s. The way her lips leisurely, yet calculatedly, reached out for its top linked my mother with the circle of life. Just as Abuela is, Mamí, would be, already is. And so, I shall be. Am. When she transformed into my grandmother I felt the pangs of a moment yet to be lived, but one which I knew was coming and could feel in all its force. I saw myself as an orphan, lying on the edge of my bed, tracing the lines of my mother’s face with my eyes closed. I remembered crying and wondering how people deal with the death of parents (four funerals later and I still do not know). At the conclusion of this future memory, I thought about the moment I am in now, where I realized for the first time that she, too, will die, and how my future self would, is currently, habitually reflect[ing] on this instant: the day I was met with my dead grandmother’s eyes. How time stopped at that moment and I was transported to the future and ambushed by my humanity, that of my family’s, and their entanglement. Humanity only exists in relation to the collective, which is what I am left with. It was my first interaction with memory’s timelessness, how its immortality and untethered movement makes it a powerful tool for gathering a sense of self and illusion of groundedness. It is how I realized that it is what was needed to build myself back up. 

In a dimly lit bar, I once let it slip that I felt I was from nowhere. My companion put his hand under his chin and positioned the countenance of an attentive friend, but it was obvious he could not relate. He did not understand how it was to be in between. To not feel completely at ease in the space you inhabit. Shortly after, I made the decision to limit the extension and roots of my identity construction to the confines of myself. I was, and could never be, anything more than what I had and has been (maybe, too, what I wanted to be). But, sometimes, during moments of weakness, I was abducted by the past in the form of a song, term of endearment, or the smell of rice and simmering meat, and my work would begin to unravel. Transported to a story, to a life unlived by me but one which lies dormant in my fabric, within my Rolodex of references, reminding me that we are not spawns of ourselves but are connected to all that have breathed so that we could. I can create new reaches, but I may not deny the history I was born into, and of which I am from. Somewhere indeed! Acknowledgment of collective, cultural and ancestral memory, passed onto me deliberately through repeated reminders- studies of littered dead iguanas, pineapples on the highway, mulled wine in the plaza and leathered faces- later reconfigured as a personal, created recollections of my generational past, is how I came to construct my identity: a singular, extended embodiment of my decided human theme. My motif. My inclination to understand me as a walking, living, breathing testament to the persistent working of time’s never-ending meaning-creation. Story creation. And the envigored, re-remembered, eternity of my ancestors and community. Continued via my chapter. My(?) new land. My added breath in our collective inhale. Exhale.   

I’ve used my memories like I would a prayer; in the hopes that they weave answers and relieve me of some anxiety – by filling the deficit self-reflection yields. They are the tools that allow me to give my existence poetic depth, as well as unity- a dynamic orientation- so I am never absorbed into another person, or lost during the passage of time. So that I may imagine a cohesive future, and carve out a determined vision of her where she lives completely and happily. Unafraid of growing old or settled in who she is. It is how I can create a Life Lived and Be Lived. Truthfully. Contently. Adjusted to sate my present imbalance. And complete my search for the definition of “home” and a sequence that comfortably compliments “I am.” One that does not feel like a forgery. I see now that authenticity and good faith sound of gentle, wind-blown chimes and fervent acceptance. Of linked episodes (mine)– verdant peaks, El Chacal’s trumpet, flattened yuca, bubbling grape leave cylinders, lipstick kisses and confused sad smile eyes –, gifted origin retentions (yours, my family) – practiced acts of adaptation, strength and kinship, easy laughter, unwavering pride, always available love – and timeless diaspora memories (ours) – confusion branded by spats of guilt, longing, inadequacy, and nowhereness. Self-proclaimed uncategorizable. Continued history with a new home. Ni de aquí, ni de allá. My memories give me the confidence to lay claim to what I already know is within me and, occasionally, retreat to an alignment in which I can take deserved solace. They have paved my theme which connects me with the world but does not absorb me into it. That writes me as a character into a story larger than myself. A route so wrought in our intertwined, far-reaching humanity that I am put to ease knowing that I am never too alone, always in the company of those who seek (sought) the same.

I am the daughter of a mother from the Caribbean mountains and a father cut of Eastern European rebellion, who moved to New York in their late 20s in search of something their homes could not give them. I, too, am of those places and carry their histories, and their history’s history, with me like a backpack through my movement in the world. I accept the idiosyncrasies that come with not being woven into the framework of your country. The difficulties that result from not having an acknowledged record in the place you live. From the feeling of nowhereness. But these inheritances no longer lay festering, drying me from within. My (our) being here has a history- is history unfolding – and these circumstances will not plague me, but serve as a testament to the transpiring of a new chapter. Byproducts of newness. Reflections and connections to times lived and unseen has shown me that “me” includes ancestral heritage, whose roots were sown in me young and from which I inescapably emerge as I am today. That my only path to authenticity and settlement, a full “I,” is truth and pride. And respect for my first-generation memory. I am new freedom and old responsibility, the past still living. A constant reminder that we are ourselves and all of our family at once. A living, breathing slice of beautiful, prototypical humanity. 

Paulina Calistru (she/her) is a first-generation Puerto Rican/Romanian American and aspiring writer. With an M.A. in Philosophy from the CUNY Grad Center, she is currently interested in creatively exploring the phenomenology of diaspora and its subjects. You can usually find her walking the streets of NYC, riding her bike, reading or in her room watching too much TV.

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