You Said It

Our World Alone

An epistolary meditation on Lorde, Flannery O’Connor, the grotesque, and the ache of being a teenager.

Illustration by Eleanor.

Illustration by Eleanor.

4/28/2014

Dear Allen,

It’s been almost a year since we first met in the corner of that theater in New York. We had both bought the day-of student tickets and I had a crush on you the moment you sat down next to me. After the play we wandered around the city and pretended we were only excited about the play, and not each other. It had just rained. We sat in Central Park. You asked to see me again, but I was flying home to Chicago the next morning. When I got home, I called you. You answered. We talked. Then, I began writing you emails. I wrote this one back in December, right after your 20th birthday, when you had already forgotten about me.

I found it again recently, just as I’m at the cusp of so many things. In a few weeks I’ll turn 20, too. Soon I’ll be transferring schools, leaving the city I grew up in, my friends, and everything I know. I’m scared to be at the edge again, and finding this old letter reminded me that there are all kinds of edges to be at.

Now I write to a different boy. His name is Paul. I might have forgotten about you, if not for the emails still saved on my hard drive.

For now,
Tova


12/17/13

Dear Allen,

We still haven’t addressed the fact that I send you emails at strange hours—2, 3 AM—without really knowing you. But you still haven’t responded to any of them, so I don’t bother asking you about it. I just keep sending them. My friends say you probably think I’m crazy. Last night I read I Love Dick again, just to feel better about myself, these messages, and your silence. I came across this line: “But loving you’d become a full-time job and I wasn’t ready to be unemployed.”

I underlined it because it was just your 20th birthday, and for the entire day I was struck with the significance of that. The day felt important, like the birthday of someone I’ve known intimately. It made me wonder about my own age. About still having “teen” slapped onto the end of my number.

There was another passage from I Love Dick that I underlined:

I feel so teenage. When you’re living so intensely in your head you actually believe when something happens you’ve imagined, that you’ve caused it. [...] When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless. [...] [Teenagers are] so far in [their heads] that there’s no difference between the insides of their heads and the world.

I’ve never really strongly identified as a “teen” nor thought about belonging to that particular species until this year, just as I’m almost done being one. I bought Lorde’s CD when it came out a few months ago, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since. On the way to school, on the way to work, on the way home, while driving in the rain, on my way to a Halloween party with all my friends singing along in the backseat. Lorde and her CD accentuated this teenage identity I’ve let myself adopt lately, before I let it go forever.

For a while I didn’t bother trying to understand why I like her so much, why it aches to listen to her music, why it haunts me until I turn it on and chase the ghosts away. But lately I’ve been reading a lot of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer whose short stories are filled with complicated characters and gruesome endings, and I began to understand a bit more.

In Flannery O’Connor’s writing, I saw everything I was familiar with but didn’t have words for. I quickly became obsessed with how she approaches religion in her stories. I knew she was describing the Deep South, where a stranger might randomly call you a Yankee, but she could have been describing the Hasidic community I grew up in and left. Her characters are self-righteous, complicated, naïve, and so terribly well-meaning. She describes a world filled with well-worn traditions that seemed odd to everybody except the people raised with them. She wrote in my language, the language of the grotesque.

When people hear grotesque they think of gross, weird, disfigured, ugly, and comically distorted. But grotesque can also mean fascinating, fantastical, strange, magical, unusual, eccentric, just plain odd. It’s also a way to describe the aspects of life that repulse us, humor us, and make us uneasy all at once. The grotesque takes on forms we are familiar with but distorts them until they start to contradict themselves. O’Connor’s short stories speak of things we are familiar with—death, religion, farms—but present them in a way that twists our assumptions and plays with our expectations.

I think this idea of the grotesque accurately describes the world of a teenager, which simultaneously involves itself with the outside world and keeps its distance from it. When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. This could also be said about the places we can’t escape from that also feel like home. I feel this way about my old community. The community that raised me is a large part of my identity and defines me in so many ways. At the same time, I remain completely contradictory to my community. I don’t look like them anymore, think like they do, or keep the traditions.

Most days, the world feels overlarge as it teems around me, and I struggle to keep steady and feel relevant within it. I stumble, and feel entirely unbalanced and worthless. On those days I feel powerless, and I am driven by a need to make the world feel bearable and navigable. When we’re young children, most of us have people we can trust to tighten our world up so it’s nice and small and cozy. But then we get older, and by the time we’re teenagers we’ve realized that religious doesn’t always mean “good,” and that our parents are right about many things, but not everything. Because more things are suddenly possible, the world, as we see it, gets bigger. I remember the first time I saw my parents cry, and how it eventually stopped surprising me to see them cry, to realize they don’t know all the answers. And the world got wider. I remember when I went to the psychiatric unit for the first time and realized I wasn’t the only one who constantly felt like dying, and that I couldn’t always trust authority figures to be looking out for my best interests. It was important that my world grow, but with each of its growth spurts came a feeling of powerlessness, and a consequent urge to grab on to things and draw them near and tighten my world again. When I’ve drawn my world in to a comfortable size, I feel omnipotent again.

All of this is possibly the reason why teenage romances feel so intense and monumental, because they become the home bases in an otherwise insecure world. I dated my first boyfriend when I was 17, and when we broke up I felt like I was let loose into a big, open world. I was glad to be alone in my own head, but there was something frightening about losing that security. For a long time, his positive opinion of me kept me anchored in a world that shifted unexpectedly. He loved me intensely, completely, and overwhelmingly. It felt special and singular, and it provided me with a cozy and safe world within the bigger world I had learned to mistrust and be skeptical about.

The funny thing about Flannery O’Connor is that she seems at once omnipotent and powerless. In her writing, the narrator critiques each of her characters and almost mercilessly destroys most of them at the end. But throughout the stories there is a feeling that the narrator is no better than the characters she condemns. In writing these letters to you I feel powerful. Here, between these lines, I can create a world where you care about what I have to say. Here, I have created a space for myself within the huge world where I feel as though I have no say. Maybe this is why I keep falling in love with boys who won’t answer my letters, because it’s a chance to create a world that’s small, one that I can steer.

The best way to approach these worlds—the small teenage world we create to make life bearable, the Hasidic bubble of Orthodox Jews in West Rogers Park, the farm in the Deep South—is through the language, the art, and the music that engage with them while contradicting them. Through identifying the contradictions and being fascinated and delighted and sickened by them all at once. Through facing them, confronting them, and fusing them, which Flannery O’Connor does in her writing, and Lorde does in her music.

Page

1 2

28 Comments

  • honorarygilmoregal April 29th, 2014 12:17 AM

    Great read! Lorde is so talented at writing lyrics.

    http://perkstobeinginfinite.tumblr.com

  • asif April 29th, 2014 12:31 AM

    Thank you for sharing this. This is so so beautiful.

    Discovering Lorde was probably one of the best things about this year for me. She made me realize how ok it can be to love to hate things, and that its also ok to try and find beauty in the grossest parts of your life. She puts that feeling you get driving on a dark highway with your best friend in a gross place into the most beautiful melodies. I could go on forever. Her music is so infinitely important to me, as is her as a person.

    Everything you wrote here voiced everything I feel about Lorde, about appreciation, about grotesque things.

    I’m so extra appreciative of Rookie on nights like this, when I feel uninspired and too bored to move. You guys remind me how much I’m capable of loving things.

    Over and over again, thank you.

  • Mer April 29th, 2014 12:32 AM

    This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. It captured everything I’ve ever felt while listening to Lorde. There’s this eerie glow that surrounds her. She perfectly captures the teenage experience and I just feel so connected to her words and also to yours Tova.

    The song “Ribs” is my favorite and when I saw Lorde in concert, she gave a little speech beforehand explaining what the song meant to her and everyone at Roseland Ballroom was just screaming and ignoring her but I was so enthralled with every word she said and then sang.

    I find beauty in the normality of everyday life but I also fear this normality because I know that one day soon this will all change and my world will get bigger and I’m just so glad that I read his tonight because it helped me shrink my world back down. And for that I thank you.

  • ghostgurl April 29th, 2014 12:47 AM

    I loved this piece! I felt kinda nostalgic, and it was very eloquent. I’d love to see more from Tova in the future!

  • taratwinkle April 29th, 2014 1:01 AM

    This is one of the most beautiful, honest, heartfelt and intelligent things I have ever read. I can relate to it on so many levels even though I’m coming from a very different place. I’ve been trying to put a word on the grotesqueness you described so well. Also, your prose is lovely.
    Cheers to duality and contradiction and tiny worlds and huge worlds and being in love and the grotesque ghosts hiding behind normally.
    Thank you.

  • greystar April 29th, 2014 1:06 AM

    “I’ve never really strongly identified as a “teen” nor thought about belonging to that particular species until this year, just as I’m almost done being one.”
    I started to cry at this part
    i feel this so much
    thank you for this

  • Zoe April 29th, 2014 2:28 AM

    This was crazy beautiful and insightful and perfect omg

  • Elsary April 29th, 2014 2:39 AM

    I feel some way same as you, and I understand what you’re talking about – or at least I think I do. I love Lorde too, and the fact that her lyrics tell about being teenager, but in a different way than all teen movies and books do, in more realistic way.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

  • whateveryazmine April 29th, 2014 3:07 AM

    Love this article and the accompanying illustration is gorgeous!
    http://www.whateveryazmine.blogspot.com.au

    P.S. Is Tova Benjamin a real person or is it a version of Tavi Gevinson?

  • sonnentanz April 29th, 2014 3:49 AM

    thank you so much for this!

  • JaneII April 29th, 2014 4:50 AM

    Wow. Just great.

    This Lorde album has been destroying me in a lot of ways lately and I’ve had the suspicion that it’s been destroying a lot of other people too. But I’ve been left alone in my own world with them. No one to share with.

    Thanks for shrinking my world.

  • Parmenides April 29th, 2014 6:39 AM

    I don’t know what to say.

  • Tilda Vilde April 29th, 2014 7:12 AM

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this!!
    I have been thinking about this all day and how insanely perfect it was. And the illustration is just as crazy perfect.
    just…so…freakin’…perf

  • Eileen April 29th, 2014 9:51 AM

    Are these real letters? I just really loved this; it was so incredibly well written. Seriously, I hope I get to the point where I can articulate like you can.

  • onlykhenzo April 29th, 2014 11:58 AM

    This is so perfect. Thank you. Thank you. I’m going to put aside how much I appreciate the I Love Dick references to say that I just found myself nodding and welling up at, like, everything. I’ve always wondered exactly what it was about Lorde that I loved so much and what was so endearing. What kept the lines of her songs stuck in my head for months on end.
    And you, Tova, got it. And I am so happy and fueled with creative energy now.
    x
    glitterdaiquiri.com

  • elliejamc April 29th, 2014 12:34 PM

    Beautifully written, please write more! Perfect explanation of something I could never quite put my finger on. I think it’s what our youth is all about, that cross between what really happened and what we dreamed happened. I was screaming “exactly!” the whole way through.

  • speakeasied April 29th, 2014 2:19 PM

    About halfway through reading this, I started crying, and continued to until a good ten minutes after I finished it.

    I immediately went to print this out so I could hang it in my room and sent it to everyone who means anything to me so I could share this beautiful piece of writing.

    Tova, your writing spoke to me in a way that I forgot was possible, and I want to thank you for that. Your meditations on Lorde, specifically, were all of the thoughts I haven’t been able to translate to words – and your willingness to share such a personal introspection has made me remember I am not alone in feeling this way.

    Thank you, times a million.

  • dreamygirl April 29th, 2014 8:27 PM

    thank you so so much. this has been so special. everything everything was great, “i don’t want to feel pretty anymore”, i love this piece with all my heart.

  • willa frances April 29th, 2014 8:31 PM

    this was beautifully written, and i love the shout out to west rogers park!

  • lyssagrltx April 29th, 2014 9:47 PM

    Crying. So Beautiful and well-written. These are poetry in letter form.

  • Paola April 29th, 2014 9:50 PM

    I connect so completely to that I Love Dick line, about living so intensely inside your head that it doesn’t matter whether it’s made up or not. Bravado is my favorite too; I used to listen to it on the way to soccer practice walking alone and feeling sorry for myself until I turned it on and the lyrics and her voice made everything okay. Thanks for this, Tova!!

  • Zen April 29th, 2014 10:03 PM

    All too familiar

    I shed tears the first time I listened to Ribs and my heart kind of ached and I couldn’t yet comprehend why

    X

  • readyfortofade April 30th, 2014 1:08 AM

    This is one of my favorite Rookie pieces to date. Thank you, Tova, for the inspiration, comfort, catharsis, and beauty. (Also, I love your poetry).

  • Aitchy April 30th, 2014 5:46 AM

    l am well out of the demographic of this site – Lorde brought me here! Her music still resonates with me, it makes me remember what it was like to be 17 and have those thoughts “l want them back “…
    This is a great story, such insight and so articulate.

  • Alexandra T. May 1st, 2014 5:21 PM

    wow.

  • Kiana Kimberly Flores June 1st, 2014 9:32 AM

    This is very profound and perfect and intimate. My heart bursts. Beautiful writing, Tova. ♥

  • oliviare June 22nd, 2014 12:09 AM

    Thank you for this. It is absolutely beautiful, and I relate to it on so many levels. You are an amazingly talented writer!

  • cautionarywhale June 25th, 2014 1:26 AM

    I’m really glad that I decided to read this at 1 am during the loneliest month of my life. I don’t feel alone thanks to Lorde’s music and thanks to this piece. This was amazing to read.