A few weeks ago, I was riding the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan when I discovered those first photos of birds covered in oil on someone's Twitter. Until that moment, the oil spill had just seemed sort of unreal to me, and then suddenly it hit me, all at once, and I started crying. The whole ride home, I was either crying or stewing in outrage, feeling smaller and smaller by the second, unsure of what I could possibly do - if anything - to counteract the largest human error yet seen in my lifetime.
Anti-BP graffiti near my apartment in East Harlem
So I did the only thing I know how when I'm seriously impacted by something. I wrote about it. I wrote a really long, really angry poem, and I went home and for several nights recorded myself reading it, in various states of undress and makeup and lighting and all kinds of crazy things. I ended up not being happy with the results, because what I had written - while raw and very true to how I felt in those moments - was not something I wanted to publicly and permanently attach my name to. It was too violent and hateful.
So I re-wrote it, trying really hard to focus my sadness and anger into a different channel, where I re-visited my childhood memories of the Gulf and tried to express as best I could how the people on the coast must feel right now. Even though I don't live down there, a big part of me does, because a lot of my fondest memories growing up center on that culture. It breaks my heart to know that it has been treated so haphazardly.
Anyway, I wrote an essay and recorded myself reading it. Below, the full text of the essay and my recording. This also marks the first time I've put my actual voice on my blog (aside from various videos I've posted). Please read and/or listen, and don't forget you have a voice too. Please donate if you can, or simply raise your voice however you feel comfortable.
Love and art, always.
When I Was Little
When I was little, I made a new friend at the beach. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I was wearing a teal green two-piece bathing suit, with little bows on the back of the top, and little bows on the bottoms. My long brown hair was wet, hanging down to the middle of my back, and my bangs bounced on my forehead as I ran, my feet slapping the wet brick around the edge of the pool.
Sunlight bounced off the water and hit my teeth, reflecting blindly as I laughed and jumped into the pool with my new friend. She was skinny, and much tanner than me. I could never tan, and I still can’t, but the freckles tried desperately to make up for my lack of melatonin, stretching their faces to the sky, which was as blue as the ocean, and reached forever and ever and seemingly ever into the future.
She was skinny, and she wore a tie-dyed one piece. She had long blonde hair. I don’t remember her name. We grasped hands and played games around the pool. We invented worlds on the edge of the water, worlds with rules but without regulations, worlds with no night, only day. No rain, only sunlight. No money, only play. Even now, as I think of her, I can feel the sand coating my thighs, stubbornly clinging, unaffected by chlorine stains.
When I was little, we always went to the beach in the mornings. Always, always, I would wake up and my parents would be brewing coffee, and a fresh box of doughnuts would sit on the counter, open and waiting for me. The house would smell of coffee and sugar glaze and saltwater, and when I woke up the first thing I heard was the waves crashing against the shore. I can smell it now. I can hear it.
We would walk down to the beach, and I would dutifully remove my flip-flops, as I had watched my mother do so many times before. And I would tread carefully on the sand, feeling my calves clench up in resistance, releasing their tension once I arrived at the water’s edge. My toes reached and grasped at the waves, urging me forward. I would always go in, maybe up to my waist, but I was afraid to go any farther. My mom almost drowned when she was little, so my fear is ingrained in my double helices. But the fear just made me love it more, pushed me toward it more insistently, made the splash of my legs cutting through the blue echo more loudly against the coastline.
My parents and I would always make sandwiches for lunch. We sat out on our balcony and ate them while we played card games or backgammon. The balcony over the beach was a safe zone; I have only happy memories of that space – laughing, feet curled up under knees, bellies full of bologna and potato chips, sun-kissed skin straining against plastic railing, the constant whoosh of the waves hitting the shore. That was my childhood.
When I wasn’t so little anymore, I remember going to the beach by myself one night. I sat in the sand, on the very edge of the water. I remember thinking I had never seen anything so black in my entire life. So black, and vast, and empty, and full, all at the same time. I remember thinking I had no idea what I was actually looking at, and wondering if there was someone on the other side of the water, looking back at me. I remember wondering if I tossed a bottle into the ocean, first writing a letter and tucking it inside, if it would ever reach someone, anyone, and if that person would write me back. I remember thinking how everything was actually connected, how any sense of separation was just a human invention, and how the ocean was proof of this.
Now, I’m all grown-up. I live in New York City, and I haven’t seen the Gulf for more than two years. And now, I know I’ll never see it again. I will go down, I will visit, but the waters of my childhood are gone forever. Even as I write it, I deny it. I tell myself I’m just being dramatic, that I should just stop writing right now, because the oil spill’s not that bad after all, and it will be resolved soon, and will be nothing more than a black shadow of a memory, a former version of a slick we almost forgot.
But the truth is that, probably, it is that bad. The thing about oil is that we don’t know how much of it there is, because the universe buried it underneath miles and miles of dirt and sand and earth, and we can’t see where it ends. We found it, and claimed it as ours, but, as usual, we know only the beginning. In the meantime we just see people and animals, stuck in a frozen flail, suspended in space by oil.
To the people at British Petroleum, and across the entire oil industry, who have been charged with repairing this tragedy, know that you cannot. All the money in the world is useless. Nature doesn’t accept our currencies. You cannot repair it, but you can work to stop it. And you have to.
Get off your yacht, Tony Hayward. Of course I don’t believe that you can fix this horror show, and I don’t even believe that you care to, but at least you should pretend.
Just imagine, now, if I dropped a bottle into the Gulf. It wouldn’t go very far. It might float out just a few miles before it got trapped in the sludge. And inside, a letter that would never be read. A letter that says, “Hi, my friend from the pool. I don’t know if you remember me from all those years ago. I was wearing teal green. I can’t remember your name, but I am glad we made friends. I hope you get this letter. Love, Meghan.”