Over summer I ate things I fished myself and drank water I drew up from a well. I did drawings in a sketchbook that nobody saw. I talked to a dog. I spent whole days having sex with the curtains drawn. I painted my grandmother’s toenails.
“My friend used to come over to do them.” My grandmother—we call her Mormor, or mother’s mother—explained while I worked. “But my friend—she goes about her life as a whirlwind. She is no good at painting nails.”
As a whirlwind—som en virvelvind. My grandmother’s English is refined and clunky. It’s one of at least six languages in her possession so you can’t really blame her for it. She was a diplomat’s wife. It used to be her job to make people feel comfortable, speak to them in their own tongue, know the order of the cutlery on the table, and remove an olive pip from her mouth without anybody noticing. Do it with a twirl of the fingers, she told me, and no one will know.
Still recovering from a hip replacement, she couldn’t yet leave the house, so the only eyes that saw her nails were hers and mine. Turned out even that was too much. “Don’t look, they’re so wonky and ugly!” She cried as I gently peeled her stockings away.
She is a lady who took care of her feet. Skin scrubbed, cream applied. Nails cut, filed, and painted. She’s been doing this for almost 80 years. She’s been divorced for 30, so I don’t know who’s been looking. But she’s done it anyway.
I kept it a secret from my friends that I was back in England. I decided I would rather make sure dinner was ready every evening by the time my mum got home from work and familiarize myself with the latest developments in my four-year-old sister’s vocabulary than try and catch up with people who were only going to become less and less familiar with time. And I wanted to be what my grandmother had implied—the opposite of a whirlwind.
Night after night I refused to go anywhere.
“What is it? Are you tired?” My mother—always on her feet—would ask.
“Yes,” I told her. “I haven’t slept for a year.” It was lazy and rude and incorrect as an answer. But it avoided admitting to her that I was trying to slow my life down to a stop.
My friends were teaching children in Botswana and interning at Vanity Fair. I told myself I was just trying to do the opposite. I reasoned that what I wanted was to make the least impact on the world possible.
Living in a forest in Finland for a month was a good way of doing that. My days went like this: wake up, walk into the bushes, pee, fetch water from the well, eat, walk back into the bushes, pluck mushrooms (different bushes), sit at the kitchen table and wash the earth away, chop, fry, stir, serve, eat, wash dishes, strip naked, swim, return to land and get in the boat, check crayfish traps, cook, eat, sleep. In the midst of these tasks I was thinking a lot about climate change, about living self-sufficiently, and what it would be like if I only spoke to two or three people for the whole rest of my life. Some days, I just wasn’t thinking anything at all.
These days my grandmother calls people on the phone from her apartment. She makes meals for one. She has membership to most of London’s major museums, and she goes and looks at the paintings alone.
There aren’t too many mirrors in the house in Finland, and before long I felt like nothing more than a pair of eyes just watching everything. Nothing behind them, just watching, watching, watching. That’s what I thought it would be like when I was little, when I imagined being reincarnated as a bug or a tree. It’s the same feeling you get lying on your back in the lake, that stillness above you and below you, and you just floating between.
Back when I was young, when something of mine would break—a rip in a dress, a stuffed animal torn open—my mother would always look me in the eye and say: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just a thing.”
Snapping back, my question was always the same. “What does matter, then?”
“People matter,” she’d say. “People you love.” It was an easy answer; good enough for a child, but not enough to stop the same question coming back now thatI know you can love someone and still tear them up. What does matter, if we do this to each other still? What does matter, if not the tiny things that we gather up around ourselves when we live our lives as whirlwinds?
These days, I’ve lost the comfort of believing my mother has the answer to all my questions. Now I just float, asking the stillness of the lake, listening for a reply with submerged ears.
The answers are never quite within reach. I only know that they exist somewhere in between, the tiny black brush painting carefully within the lines of my grandmother’s toenails.
—Indiana T. Seresin ‘15 lives in the Dudley Co-op. Back on campus, she continues to listen for answers, though not in the Charles—yet.
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