VII: Aubade | Uncomposed: "Refractions of Light"
I have wanted to leave home since I was thirteen years old, and the desire sings in my ribs even more strongly now. For high school, my options were between a day school ten minutes from home and a boarding school thousands of miles away. I think the choice I finally made bloomed into something more complex than the grass is always greener on the other side—it was more akin to believing I could not grow into myself in a place already so heavily touched with my past.
For college, I had the option once again to return home, to live about twenty minutes from my parents. One of the acceptance letters I received included a handwritten note from an admissions officer, the ending of which read I hope you decide to come back home for the next four years. That single sentence at once made me want to frame the letter and burn it. Come back home. Come back home. Come back home. Though I knew intellectually it was nothing more than a nice, barely-considered sentiment, I couldn’t help but feel that they’d had no right to say it. I knew in my bones that travelling far from home was the only way to sing my own haven. I knew it four years ago, and I know it stronger now.
But this innate desire to leave doesn’t mean I don’t miss what’s left behind. In the act of going, even fragments of notes become irreplaceable, an ache so deeply felt that it seems necessary to retouch everything you had once touched before to understand its ephemeral value. I imagine looking at a familiar dawn for the first time from far away, and it is all things exciting. Even so there are songs and people I don’t recognize, a naïve assumption that the world will splay itself open for me. Perhaps the truer thought is that I am plunging into a world of my own volition, one whose nighttime corners and sunlit dangers I haven’t yet searched, one in which I must bear all the consequences that a new stretching freedom brings, even if one of those is loneliness.
Within the landscape of his painting Girl before a Mirror, Pablo Picasso gives a woman the power to look at herself, and as she does, I see her fractured sense of self splayed on canvas. The woman in the painting holds a mirror towards herself. Her face is wistful, divided in half between a lighter and darker force, pale pink and a more clownish gold, a contrast that brings to mind concepts of good juxtaposed with evil, dawn with twilight, pure with sinful, silence with song, natural with costume. The left side of her face seems to carry a darker force, one that is made up for the world to see, shadowed and more alien to her than the natural side, soft like the dawn in its luster. I think I can see an expression of longing in the paler side of her face, but it’s clouded and hidden by the makeup, her eyes subdued and her lips covered.
Though the woman’s face remains in profile in the reflection in the mirror, her body faces us frontally. Her face is stained light purple, made up of geometric shapes. Eyes round, unearthly. On her forehead a green oval, and lower down a red that touches her eye and the upper bridge of her nose. Her lips are parted, as if she is almost ready to speak. Picasso’s woman is mystical, recalling a harlequin or a fortune teller sparkling in too-bright sunlight, gauze. This is the floating space of internal thoughts and the mind that shapes all we see, including ourselves. In the mirror, the painted blush on the darker side of the woman’s cheek becomes a contained curve, looking almost like a tear down the reflection’s face. I know that feeling of looking in the mirror and struggling to recognize oneself. I know that song of confusion by heart.
If I don’t consciously focus on one single detail, I am washed over with the chaos of the painting, the sun-bright pattern of the background echoing the colors of the woman, trying to comprehend the swell of her breasts and stomach. Because the painting is so closely cropped and focused on the woman, we are with her and in it, the aura of fractured selfhood. I’m claustrophobic, trapped in this too-warm room. I almost feel like a voyeur, a woman watching another woman watch herself. Are we trapped in her insecurities, her daily rituals? I live in a dorm at school, far from home, and it seems that to be caught looking at oneself in the mirror is a shameful thing. Whenever I enter our communal bathroom and a woman is not doing anything in particular with her hair or makeup, just looking at herself, trying to reconcile the image she has of herself with the physical thing, she always recoils her gaze from the mirror, as if having committed some taboo.
I don’t know if I have ever directly understood how I see myself. My mother flattens my hair with her hands; she always wanted me to straighten it so that I looked more Japanese. There were maybe three Asian students in my elementary school, but I can’t recall if I thought of myself as one of them. All I know is that in that predominantly white community, I always wanted my father to come pick me up from school. I still feel guilty for this.
It bothers me that I can’t remember when my awareness of my racial identity solidified, if it ever did. Not knowing, not remembering, feels like a night in itself. I consider myself a person of color because I cannot pass as white and because I still feel deeply connected to my Japanese culture, language, music, family. I would feel cut off from sunlight without it. Once I was talking to a white friend who wished he had a stronger connection to one of the European countries from which his ancestors hailed. Though he feels completely American, he wanted another place with roots and histories older than this country. I couldn’t help but laugh at the immense privilege in that, but also at the immense sadness. To never have one’s allegiances questioned.
Even from a young age, there were certain melodies I knew to be true. My father was white and spoke only English. My mother was Japanese and spoke English as her second language, though as the years went on she strayed back to her mother tongue, as if as I grew older, there were more things to be sung in a way my father could not understand. I think the reason I’m offended when people don’t recognize that I’m half Asian is because I can’t help asking myself why I have gone through everything I have, why my history matters if the turmoil can’t even be seen on the outside. Sometimes, if truths don’t happen outside my body—if I’m not able to see the bow draw across the untuned violin, to hear its screech—I can’t fully comprehend them. I don’t believe there was ever an instrument to begin with. I cannot truly think I deserve to feel what I’m feeling. I need the fragments of myself to touch the world like tendrils of sun, feeling out into night.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers to my selfhood, the too-bright thing, or to my race, the too-dark one. I don’t yet know what my choice to leave says about me. I don’t know how much I carry from my parents no matter how far I stray, how many of my actions are still dictated by a connection to them, to my history. But this at least I know: I have all the time in the world to meet myself. The day is so long, so unbroken. My reflection stares back at me, unblinking, and this is also a kind of melody.
Monet, like other Impressionists, recorded France’s transformation during Industrialization. And although that very term—“impressionism”—was coined as a derogatory term for a supposed “unfinished” painting, I’m beginning to think it holds the only truth. In another of his paintings, The Gare Saint Lazare, Monet depicts the landscape of city as it is touched and eventually changed by the world’s forces. The train station is not immune to the effects of a tender kind of light—light hues of smoke next to dark hues, the metal of the train softened. Every element—the slips of human figure, the train tracks, the body of the train and the smoke the same color as the apartment buildings in the background—comes together to create change, progress, confusion in the face of looking at something new. Monet welcomes modernism with open arms, not fixed in direct sunlight or in complete darkness, but rather moving into a soft-lit dawn. In his hands, this scene of industrialization is nothing to fear; the once fearful and sharp qualities of development become gentle and pulsating. To me, the lifting smoke and the winding railroad track suggest a challenging road to selfhood—but also one hopeful with steady energy, with the beginnings of light.
I recently watched Halsey perform her song “Eastside” on SNL. While she sings, she paints a self portrait on the ground. The music starts, and she begins with the shadows of the nose, the eyes quick and light. She holds the brush near the base, loosely flicks paint off of it. She is in her own rhythm, a kind of dance. The lines are not straight, not planned. Sporadically, she looks up at the audience and gestures with her hands. Past experiences, failed loves, sadnesses lie in the strokes. Home lies in the strokes, a home she—I—can never let go of. To the lyrics we can go anywhere we want, she thickens an eyebrow, raises her own. Then, it’s the lips and the outline of the face, and finally her vibrant red hair, its own sun. As the song nears its end, she stands up, walks to the bottom corner of her portrait, and sits down. The camera pans up to show her sitting next to herself. As a biracial woman who struggles with being white-passing, she has created her own image. Halsey looks up at the camera, and though her portrait isn’t entirely filled in by the end of the song, the outlines and expressions are bold. It stares back at us, and it is magnificent. This is her aubade, her awakening into a world of her own making, a song she can create, painting herself neither fully shadowed nor entirely bright, unfinished and unashamed.
(Uncomposed is a column, originally written by Lydia Eileen and now by Hana Widerman, that explores the music in the moments of daily life where we don’t think to search for it—intersecting to form new meaning and nuanced dialogue. This column, along with two more by the HM team and dozens more pieces of art, music, and writing by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal’s Issue VII: Aubade. It is available for preorder now.)