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Reading the Future

By: Sarah Ansari

By the time my mother found the source of the crashing, my sister and I had already destroyed much of the wiring on the tennis rackets. She rushed amidst the fray, eyebrows furrowed and demanding that we call a truce in our battle before proceeding to scold us for our carelessness. Try as we might to justify our actions, my mom did not seem to understand the pressing importance of learning to sword fight, a skill which I was certain from my extensive research would come in handy one day.

My scholarly sources had been discovered a few months ago– my kindergarten had been hosting some competition, and I was a victor, my spoils consisting of several DVD movies, amongst which was A Quest for Camelot. Unlike the quality of the box TV that I played the movie on, I remember my first reaction with perfect clarity:

This is knock-off Disney.

Imagine my own surprise, then, when I found I could not tear my eyes away from the screen. The daring female protagonist with ambition to become a knight; the blind, witty hermit with his falcon; and the twin-headed dragons became regular guests in my household from that day forward. Four year-old me would sit in front of the T.V. with bright eyes, inching closer whenever I thought my parents were not watching and absorbing every detail I could about the fascinating new world of kings, magic, and heroes.

Really, the sword fights were a long time coming.

The grievances my parents held only multiplied as time passed. I consumed books about knights and mythology and monsters and samurais and cryptids at an alarming rate, reading by night light through the witching hour until dawn. Seeds, rocks, and plants mysteriously found their way into the crevices of our home for “potion-making” and other dastardly schemes I devised. At any given time, my bathroom held at least three hidden bottles filled with baby powder, water, deodorant, shampoo and other such ingredients, carefully selected to brew concoctions that were not so much magical as they were attractants for mold.

By the time second grade rolled around, a six year old me arrived from school every day with my backpack stuffed full of rosemary and other herbs I found in the wild (read: in the schoolyard) to present to my mom. Although I insisted she use them in her cooking, and she always promised that she did, I am beginning to suspect that was a lie. (Of course, when I say that I “suspect that”, what I mean is that I spoke to my mom recently, reminding her of my propensity to play gatherer, and she said that no, she never used the plants I brought home, because getting poisoned would be quite the inconvenience.)

Such anecdotes defined my life, although at the time, nothing I did was for play, and I performed my magical rituals with all the seriousness only a small child can muster. The same year as the potion incidents, my teacher had us write about what we wanted to be when we grew up.

More admirable than anything else about children is the complete belief that they possess in their capability to do anything. Never for a moment did my peers falter as they chattered excitedly about their ambitions to become singers, astronauts, doctors, and in my case, a knight. 

Holding onto the same wide-eyed hope of a younger me today would equate to nothing more than delusional naivete, but at the time, I believed with all my heart that the words I penned were truth. I distinctly remember the tremble in my hand and the shortness of my breath as I wrote the wish I thought framed my destiny.

I’d always been a big reader, due in large part to an insatiable curiosity that had me nagging my mother to teach me everything that my older sister was learning in school well before I had even begun it myself. If the origins of my personality were examined, it would require a long list of citations– a majority consisting of fiction. My stubbornness and love of languages came from constant re-reads of Ella Enchanted, a book which holds such a dear place in my heart that I make sure to pick it up at least once or twice a year and whenever I’m feeling sad. The fighting spirit (that has made my family joke that I would be a horrible secretary) and my admittedly too-sharp-at-times tongue trails its way back to Esmeralda from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I saw and imagined these powerful women breaking through the status quo and standing up for what they believed in, just as much a hero as any of their male counterparts. Their stories buried deep within me and filled me with dreams so grand that I blame the weight of them for my short stature. 

As I grew older, I became increasingly disenchanted with the notion I would ever become a knight. My mother laughingly remarked that when she had gone to the parent-teacher conference with my second grade teacher, they had talked about the essay declaring my path to knighthood and the other works I’d turned in throughout class. My teacher had leaned in with a conspiratorial smile and told my mom,

“Please tell her to mention me when she publishes her first book.”

Forward the reel to college, and here I am, an English major. An English major who fences, dabbles in archery, and has worked closely with birds of prey. My dream of sitting at the Round Table likely won’t be fulfilled (although you know who to call if you see a dragon), but the influences of my childhood heroes still burn within me, stuck in my heart like Caliburn in the stone. They, along with the real-life female role models who surround me (such as my mother and that teacher from long ago), have forged me into who I am today. 

When I write, I yearn for people to find the same comfort and camaraderie that I was lucky enough to experience in my work. Having someone (real or not) to look up to, that represents them, can shape a child’s future, instilling them with that indelible assuredness that they can do absolutely anything that they set their minds and hearts upon. The words they consume– read, hear, write down in a rowdy second grade classroom– might just frame their destiny.

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Tortured Artist

By: Sarah Ansari

TW: mental health, depression

I was seventeen when I decided I wanted to become a writer — the same year I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

It felt as though the world had decided to play some kind of sick joke on me and inject me with a slew of mental health issues at the precise moment I decided I wanted to pursue a career in the creative field. I spent days and nights, unwilling to move or breath or live, but I was the epitome of every romanticized trope.

There was only one problem: during the bouts of depression, I could never actually bring myself to create anything.

My sadness was never a catalyst for the birth of my magnum opus. The only thing I managed to create during those times were never-before-seen levels of grease on my unwashed face. My most remarkable moments were not frenzies of genius and flurries of paper; they were the times I managed to get out of bed.

Every day, I would feel as though I were deteriorating — both mentally and physically — as my hair thinned, the circles under my eyes grew hollow, and my memory dulled. With the moon waned my interest in day-to-day activities I had once adored. That spark of passion that told me I wanted to write flickered, and then burnt away. My thoughts were consumed with an overbearing need to sleep, but the crushing fear of time passing prevented me from even that relief.

One of the most popular stories about Vincent van Gogh involves his consumption of yellow paint in hopes that the sunny colour would impart some happiness upon him. The rumour is circulated in solemn tones whenever he comes up in conversation. Whether true or not, it makes for a good piece of gossip. Suddenly, the swirls of deep blue paint embracing the shocking radiance of yellow are valued by the mass public not because of their inherent beauty, but because they emblemize the figure of the tortured artist.

But depression is not beauty, nor does it lead to anything remotely resembling beauty. Though romanticized, mental health conversations are also stigmatized, so those suffering are afraid to speak out about the pain we feel, wondering if we’ve been faking it all along. Depression for me was bouts of anger– lashing out at my family, saying unforgivable things that I’ll spend my whole life repenting for. When I filled out my college applications, I omitted all awards and half of my extracurriculars, drowning in the feeling that I deserved nothing. I hardly deserved to live, much less to prosper. I’m not particularly religious, but every evening, I would pray for death and every morning, I would curse the heavens when it never came.

In public, to my friends and classmates, I remained as jovial as ever. I think I never made so many new acquaintances as I did in that last year of high school. My grades remained in the A-range in all classes but one despite my unwillingness to study. Sometimes I even managed to laugh, though my smiles were accompanied by pangs of guilt and the wrenching fear that I was falsifying my mental health. In class, I would respond to questions more often, hoping that nobody noticed the way I covered the wrist of my raised arm with my other hand when I did. When my friends wanted me to look something up on my phone afterschool, attempting to peer over my shoulder, I would hunch over for a minute, covering the screen while I closed out search pages I had long-since memorized on the easiest ways to die.

That ambition of being a writer — that tantalizing dream — slid from my grasp until all my hopes for the future culminated in the wish that I would die before I reached twenty-two.

Once I began to see a therapist, the obtrusive feeling of a hot iron pressing on my brain began to subside. A few months into my new routine, I was placed on antidepressants and the fog became a thin mist.

I used to be deathly afraid of good things happening to me, paralyzed with the nagging worry that misfortune in the tenfold would occur as a result of my happiness. One day, I noticed myself having fun — no strings attached — and I took that as my first triumph.

Recovery was never — is never — linear, however. Somehow, as I got better, I felt that I was becoming a stranger to myself. The first stirrings of passion began once more in my gut, but amidst stories of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Cobain (all amazing artists, but people tend to romanticize their mental health struggles, similar to van Gogh), I wondered whether my writing became worse as I got better. The toxic perceptions of those in the creative industry — a field already undervalued and stigmatized– made me want to exploit myself, ignoring all the progress I had made to fill the ideals of the starving artist and the tortured artist.

But here’s the thing– here’s the thing I wished someone would tell me in the moments I felt myself spiraling down that rabbit hole. While creation can be an outlet for pain, the equation of suffering and beauty is flawed. I’ve already discussed my experiences — while at the mercy of my low days, I could barely bring myself to eat, much less craft an exquisite story. My best material — my only material — came on the good days. Those were the moments I felt most proud of myself for having the strength to allow for happiness. When I write about my pain, it is not to celebrate the beauty of it, but to celebrate the beauty of overcoming it. I am not a tortured artist. Those words contradict one another, cancel each other out. The artistic spirit withers in such conditions. I am undefined by my depression, undefined by my anxiety, tempered by the resilience, strength, and bravery it takes to move forward in the creative field. I am a conduit of worlds, creator of life. 

I’m now nineteen, two years older than I once hoped to live, and against all odds, I’m still alive. I’m nineteen and I’ve rediscovered a passion for writing, found a new reason to look to the future. I’m nineteen and I am an artist.