We started our sophomore September by writing “suite rules” on poster paper in multicolored Sharpies. We agreed on a select and varied few: Call your mothers, floss, it’s always okay to cry, wear a crown on your birthday and floors happen.
A floor happens when something — a triggered memory, an unmade decision, a feeling of being overwhelmed — washes over you. Your hands might find their way to your hair, then maybe your fingers fall to your face, and then your spine might hit the ground and uncurl onto the floor. In moments of uncertainty, the security of the floor could provide a refuge.
In our suite, these rules advocated for self-care. It didn’t take long for me to break the rules.
I was on the Women’s Center’s board that year. It was the year of the DKE incident, the Pundit party, Title IX. For us, it was the year of column writing via Google Documents, late nights next to Durfee’s, multihour Sunday meetings that spilled into family dinner. Conversations about gender at Yale were abuzz, making headlines on campus and nationwide. I aligned my opinions with our press releases and saved my feelings for later.
The flow of adrenaline, as happens with all news stories, soon ebbed. Most people moved on and returned to our campus script about Wednesday night Toad’s and term-paper word counts. I couldn’t stop thinking about things like the DKE incident, though — not because it was the most egregious event that this campus had ever seen, but because it became a public symbol of the many other private abuses on our campus.
Because of that, I didn’t want to move on. I reasoned that things were bad, and that was a reason to feel bad. I thought that the more an activist cares, the more she suffers. I broke up with my boyfriend, went home many weekends, had my first panic attack. I was breaking many of our suite rules about self-care, but the floors started happening, anyway. Much of the time, I didn’t want to peel myself off of the floor.
In February, my suitemate’s sister visited and built us a fort. She took a bed frame, empty from a roommate studying abroad, flipped it upside down and hung sheets from the top. She pinned the sheets against upturned desks and draped corners to the floor. She put pillows and lights inside. The fort became a land of dancing and napping and crying. It was magical. It was also a fire hazard.
Friends and I spent afternoons under blankets, on top of pillows, in the gloaming light that would sink through the hanging sheets. We scratched each other’s hair and read poetry and watched “30 Rock” on Hulu. Floors happened in the fort — we were often a mess of curly brown hair and flushed faces and teary pillows — but laughter happened, too. I have since referred to the fort as “The Land of I Know What Joy Looks Like.” In that place of joy and sisterhood and hanging sheets, I took care of myself again. I let floors happen. I allowed myself to move on.
We folded up the fort in May. We took out the safety pins and tacks and cut out squares from one of the floral fabrics. We promised each other, as we said goodbye to the rest of the physical fort, to carry internal forts around within us, holding onto spaces where we could protect ourselves.
I still have that square of fabric pinned to my wall. After that year, I stopped working at the Women’s Center. Moving on and taking care of myself meant discovering my right to live a nonpolitical life. I started reading the news more selectively, skimming over what might upset me. I indulged in all kinds of refuge — climbing up trees, jumping in rivers, standing on my head.
And I am happy, exuberant often. But sometimes I miss that engagement with the world around me — that reckless desire and commitment to make things better — even though it meant putting self-care second, and even though it brought on many messy emotions that made it difficult to stand when floors happened.
The fort showed me that you can’t take care of other people until you take care of yourself. It’s unsustainable. But since the sheets of the fort were first draped two years ago, I have made much of the world around me a fort, never straying from my rules. But now I often wonder how to emerge from this pervasive fort, throw myself into a cause and trust that, even if I lose balance and even if I break a few rules of self-care and even if I have to let floors happen, I will find an internal fort where I can stand again.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .