Tank

I live in a tank. Occasionally, my fish throw down a sandwich for me to eat.

My tank is lined with plastic grass and studded with cardboard houses. Taped to the inside wall of the tank is a blurry photo of a city skyline. I hate looking at it, because it reminds me too much of home. Life outside the tank is so much more wonderful. The air is sweeter because the trees outside aren’t plastic. The trees outside clean the air themselves, so we don’t have to depend on fish scooping us out once every week to filter the air and clean our plastic trees and cardboard houses, protecting us from germs that don’t exist in life outside the tank.

I’m lucky because I have other people living in my tank with me. I’ve heard of some people who live by themselves in tanks, with no one to talk to or interact with. My buddies and I don’t talk much but I like knowing they’re there if I ever feel like it. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like living in a place like this all by myself—with no one to bounce off of, no one to shoot the breeze with, no one to occasionally poke or play tag with. Just me alone with my thoughts. That idea always scares me. What happens when I run out of thoughts and there’s no one around to help fill me back up?

I have only vague memories of what life is like outside the tank, because we were taken away when I was four. But when something really dramatic like that happens even the vague memories seem real and definitive. I almost remembered the feeling of real grass on the soles of my feet or the taste of pure earth air. I had a blurry recollection of looking up at a sky filled with tiny, faint specks rather than the single glaring bulb that doused our tank every night when the fish turned off their salt lamps. I remember what running water felt like through my fingers, but now all I can splash in is the blue cloth “river” we were so generously provided with.

Don’t get me wrong, my fish are nice enough. They almost never forget to feed us, and their faces are gentle when they quietly observe us. I know Phil, who lives with me, used to have a fish who’d scream and slap the tank and make rude faces. I felt happy that our current fish are so nice to us. Occasionally they’ll blow bubbles at us and Phil says it’s them attempting to communicate, but I have no idea what they’re trying to say.

Aside from that our fish also do a really good job of making sure the air in our tank stays clean. It sucks to be shoved into a squishy bag every week and sitting dead bored as they meticulously clean out every toy and refill the air. I hate being scooped up with the itchy net and feeling helpless for the seconds I’m dangling in water before I’m put inside my air bag. Sometimes I forget to hold my breath and choke on water during the transfer. If it’s the blue fish taking me out, she usually pauses to watch me get settled and make sure I’m okay before cleaning. I appreciate that, because I would definitely not want to die during a tank cleaning.

Sometimes I do wonder how I will die. I’ve heard stories of people climbing out of their tanks in rebellion, only to drown before they can find our homeland. No one’s really sure where to go outside the tank. In fact, I wouldn’t know hardly anything about life outside the tank if it wasn’t for Phil, who was older when he was captured and has gone through three sets of fish including our current ones. Phil knows a lot more about the world than I do and I like hearing his stories even if they do make me sad about missing life outside the tank.

Sometimes Phil mentions wanting to try climbing out like others have. I’m scared to because I don’t want to have that choking feeling of swallowing water last for more than a few seconds. I’m afraid if it does it will kill me. I don’t’ really know what death is or what dying looks like but Betty, our third tank mate, seems terrified of it and apparently in our homeland it’s something you want to avoid. I don’t know, I was too young when I was captured, and my parents and I never found each other in the enormous tank we were all dumped in right after the capture.

Phil doesn’t seem to be afraid of dying. He says he knows a way that we can climb out and live long enough to get us back to the homeland. Do you even know where the homeland is? I ask him every time he says this. Not off the top of my head, he replies, but with something as important of this, I’m sure we’ll find the way.

I hope so—I mean I hope it works out for Phil. I’d hate to have him die searching for something he misses so much. He keeps asking me and Betty if we want to come. More like he keeps telling us we have to come. He makes it out like the fish are involved in some huge conspiracy against us. I don’t know about that. Creatures with such gentle faces can’t be up to much harm.

Betty refuses point-blank to go with Phil but I’m still on the fence. Betty says we have no reason to go—life is easy here, we’re taken care of. Life outside the tank is too dangerous. Here we’re safe, clean, fed regularly. We’ll die for sure if we leave, she says, but if we stay here, we’ll only maybe die.

I don’t know who to listen to. Most days I stand with my nose pressed against the glass waiting for the fish to appear with their gentle faces and throw me a sandwich.

When Life Becomes Work, your Work Becomes your Life

When I think of all the kids I have been privileged enough to encounter in my short time working with youth, I can remember every time one of them said or did something that changed my entire perspective. I remember the stories that I heard from the students in South Dakota that made me realize what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the middle schooler who said inspirational things about life and then told me her life was not meaningful. I remember the six year old who told me she wanted to die. I remember the high schoolers who told me what life was like at their school, telling me things that I never thought could happen. I remember the elementary school girl who made her fingers into a gun and pointed them at her head. I remember the tears of the kids who couldn’t go home when they wanted to and couldn’t think about anything else. I remember the kids who cling to my arms crying and can’t tell me what it is that they’re feeling. I remember the four year old who ran around the room pretending to shoot people. I remember the boy who ran around the room knocking things over and screaming and then flung his arms around me and held my hand and sat in my lap. I remember the faces of all the kids I’ve ever worked with. I have so many names etched into my existence. I have so many voices laced into my dreams. I have so many stories weighing down my heart. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise in the morning and smile at my kids when they run to me shouting my name and hid my tears until I fall into bed at night.

Conditional Worth

Conditional Worth

We’re put in groups with other random people who wanted to learn, and who want to learn this. We’re expected to take time out of our weeks to join together in a room and listen. We’re expected to participate, to listen to each other and speak up. We’re expected to look at others as humans, with respect, We’re expected to grow ourselves and take chances and make choices.

I get too attached to people because I have never EVER had the loving support I do now before this point. Love was conditional; affection was withheld. In my parents’ house there was a standard that had to be met. If you didn’t reach the threshold of perceived goodness, your worth was in question. Love was a privilege in that house.
I love my professors. They trust me and believe in me. They critique me not to shut me down but because they can see potential in me. They know I can do better. They want to support me. They want me to succeed, not because it somehow benefits them—because they see what I can be, and they want me to be there. For my own sake.

It’s a kind of caring I’d never had before but was fortunate enough to receive as soon as I came to UWGB. Within the first three weeks of classes I had a professor who spotted me as someone she wanted to see succeed. Someone she could challenge.

I was terrified of this and at the same time I was thrilled.

I was learning what it felt like to actually be appreciated. To have someone in my life who believed I was capable of great and important things.

But I was terrified of failing, because I had no idea that there would be any reaction but disappointment and isolation.

I still haven’t quite convinced myself that my professors aren’t going to do that to me.
That my friends will not shun me if I say one stupid thing.

That my real family, the family that’s been built around me in my four years at school, will not isolate and abandon me if I don’t fall in line.

My worth is unconditional. It’s not the tree that falls in a forest when no one’s around.
Love should be unconditional. Affection should not be a prize for perfection.

I still get too attached sometimes. Maybe more often than not. I want people to fill the roles I wished my parents had. I crave the unconditional love and support.

Lately I have seen more of it. When I have the energy to open my eyes. I can feel it. When they ask me. When they talk to me. When they give me that moment to breathe.

I love them too much for it and I don’t know how to give that back. I want to be as good as them. I want to be as strong. I’m building a new me on an old and broken foundation. It’s almost like I have to tear down what was there just to get something solid started.

It feels like a never ending struggle. Maybe it is. But I want to be okay someday. I want to help people the same way I’ve been helped. To see in them what they don’t themselves. To show them. You are worth it. You are strong.

Stories

​The biggest mistakes I’ve made are the ones that anyone can see. White lines, brown lines. My skin a checkered canvas. A tally of each regret. Mostly hidden. All remembered. Every story. I can count them with my fingertips. Fifteen, sixteen in a row. Feel the ridges, taste the skin. My sad story written in the place that all can see.

“Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

Candles for Orlando, June 15, 2016 Five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. What happens in the span of a year is a blur of motion: feelings smeared across a moving train, purple sorrow, red hurt, green anger, and yellow fear. It’s a whirlwind of emotion, pain twisting around regret and spiraling into depression. But […]

via “Candles for Orlando” By Tonie Bear — Burnt Pine

Caught

A girl sits on a wooden bench on a stone patio. The bench stands smooth and square; the rocks are jagged, irregular, like a jar of broken cookies mingled with the shattered glass–softened only by the grass that gasps between the cracks in an effort to emulate life. The girl’s feet join her on the bench as her knees clasp against her chest. One arm dangles down, a long blade of wheat suspended from her fingertips. Beneath the bench a ginger cat sprawls on her side, limbs splayed as she assaults the wicked wheat. Her toes stretch in comic gravity, tiny pink pads mushy against the glint of curved claws.

The girl glances up at an angle to look at her photographer. Her mouth bends, sallow and unprepared. Something sparks, captured in her eye; a spark of annoyance? Displeasure? Hey-you-interrupted-our-game? It’s not a smile.

It’s an odd picture to have in a family album. It’s not exactly something that would win a purple ribbon. We may want to capture all seasons in photographs, but do all seasons want to be captured? When do we have the assurance that we won’t get pounced on?

 

 

Originally published in The Sheepshead Review, December 2014