Everything Beautiful in the World

May 1, 2022 / Olivia Du

From chaos, came meaning. From order, came longing.

Before Chaos there was nothing.

The ancient Greeks believed that Chaos preceded even the creation of the universe. From Chaos, three primordial gods, Eros, Tartarus, and Gaea, were born. My parents did not exist before the universe, and I came to be under a starry night in Singapore instead. But like the universe, I was nothing until my mother. And through her, I experienced Love (Eros), Loss (Tartarus), and Everything Beautiful in the World (Gaea).

She and I are alike to the bone: In the structure of our faces—sharp chin, wide forehead, round nose, eyes like clear windows to the soul—and in the way our brain is wired—our trademark impatience, incessant need to worry, and, in the same vein, a love for others that consumes us whole. What my mother loves fiercely and in abundance, I do too. From sweet fermented rice wine, and growing up with the same Jay Chou CDs on repeat, to fervently laying down line upon line of writing for her eyes to read. Even the way she found the love of her life at 19 feels like an unspoken prophecy that I, too, will fulfill. I’ve learned what love means to me, and quite simply, it is a reflection of my mother.

She is also the first touch of loss I have ever encountered. I was nine when I opened the bathroom door to find her crying silently in the dark. While we had always shed tears together to sad, soapy dramas and heart-twisting stories from a land far away, I had never seen my mother so saturated with sorrow. I was too young then to understand the full weight of my great-grandmother’s passing, and for the first time, I felt removed from our intertwined identities. 10 years later, after my own shares of heartbreak, I will never forget her raw, deep-rooted pain.

Now, as the world expands much further past the doors of my childhood home, the unifying thread between my mother and I’s identities has slowly begun to fray. Almost 50, her once-restless soul has now settled down into an easy lull, while mine only continues to grow more and more capricious.

We were in the kitchen a couple of weeks ago, a rare occurrence now that I’m in college. I sat on a stool watching her peel garlic and carefully remove the scales of a yellow ribbonfish. I was in the midst of another slump, fighting a stinging loneliness and lack of purpose that now reared its ugly head more frequently. I watched her work, admiring her steadiness in hand and in heart. I wondered if she ever felt as out of place within her own body as I did.

Are you happy? The question bubbled out of me. I was almost too afraid to know the answer.

She stopped dicing the garlic and peered at me under her red-rimmed glasses, the way she always does when she’s trying to read the thoughts hidden in the deepest catalogs of my mind.

After a moment, she replied, I have learned to be. What else can I do if I know now how my life will be until I die?

I panicked. There was so much beauty left in the world for her to see, so many more places to be, and people to meet. How could she be content? While the sense of order I gained from being her replication had provided me comfort for so long, I deeply feared living a life in which I already knew the end.

Perhaps the divergence of my mother and I’s paths actually began 10 years ago, the moment I realized I would never feel that same sorrow of hers. The same realization that I couldn’t rely on someone else to tell me who I was. My superficial hold on order—my identification with my mother—began to slip, and chaos of the self

What are my 20s, I fret, if not the most influential decade of my life? To those I love now—will I still love you a thousand moons later? The choices I make now, of career, of love, of self—will they change who I am, where I will be, how and when I will leave this earth?

These days, I stare at my reflection for so long that my features morph into something ugly and strange, my pillow wet with the tears I find myself crying, and my fear of what lies in the dark unknown returns once again. I no longer see my face as a likened image of my mother’s, but something blank, unruly, and indescribable. I scratch page after page of writing feverishly, this time not for her, but to pave my one-way road to escape.

I seek refuge in self-help books and theories in hopes of finding a pattern or some sort of universal explanation that will tell me what to do. For a while, my to-do lists and color-coded calendars, my relationships where I find security in knowing what they think of me, my daily journal filled with sunsets and surprise bouquets in an attempt to document every small thing I don’t want to forget, are enough solace. Almost enough to fill the security I thought my mother once gave me.

But why does sadness continue to seep through the pages? Why am I just a broken record of loneliness and heartbreak? Can I never escape?

One warm evening, we were taking our usual walk under the brush of tree leaves and amidst the faint buzz of mosquitoes. She whispered in my ear, so that my father wouldn’t hear a few paces back, that she was once lost too. She told me that, in fact, there was nothing more beautiful than being young and foolish. She didn’t know that helping draw sketches for the confused classmate in her college design class would start a romance that’s spanned three decades. She didn’t know that she would return to school at 44 after raising two daughters, or how to cope with grief until it arrived to greet her through the phone.

The continuous search for happiness is worthy, but my belief that I will always be happy is foolish. I cannot control everything nor can I understand everyone. And it’s a good thing to feel such dizzying emotion, to stray from what I find comfortable, to break my need for order. That is true growth. That is what it feels like to stand at the precipice of this next decade and have the uncertainty of my future wrench a fistful of my hair and tear me apart piece by piece. It hurts, and it’s jarring and laden with uncertainty.

When I pull myself back together, stitch new memories into the fabric of my skin, and bathe freely in the waxing light of discovery, I will feel new. I will be stronger.

To embrace myself, to feel my turbulent sides war against one another, to stare in the mirror and trace the lines of my body as they begin to blur into smoke and take on a new shape, is to feel real.

To feel Loss, to feel Love. To feel Everything Beautiful in the World. ■

By: Olivia Du

Layout: Jaycee Jamison

Photographer: Richard Ahn

Stylists: Rachael Aquino & Yousuf Khan

Hmua: Claire Philpot, Serena Rodriguez, Marissa Kapp

Models: Yousuf Khan, Laurence Nguyen Thai, Seth Endsley

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.

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