Why I Love Avatar
A reflection on a fictional world
As a reader and a writer, I love stories. The best kind of storytelling, in my humble opinion, are stories that you escape to whenever reality is getting you down. When the author can create a fictional, complex, fantastical world that makes me want to explore there if only for a day, that is the kind of storytelling that will stick with me throughout the years. The first story that made me feel this way--this indescribable, nostalgic emotion--was Harry Potter. Although the plot was set in a magical land of wizards, witches, extraordinary creatures, and perplexing sorcery, it still felt like all of it was within the realm of possibility. It explored very human elements: romantic and familial love, friendship, bravery, grief, sacrifice, death, and the idea that good can always triumph over evil even in the face of adversity. The depth of this artificial world and the multi-dimensional character creation allowed its audience to feel empathy for people and situations that perhaps have not or could never exist.
In my personal life, it isn’t often that a book or a television show or a movie can make me feel this way. When it does, it’s a fierce reminder to me as to why I love being a writer and why I hold others’ stories so very closely. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a series that has done for me what my beloved Harry has done. Its world-building and character development are unparalleled. This was a television show that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, spanning three seasons with a total of 61 episodes at the series’ finish. In 2005, I was 12 years old and ignorant to most elements of a good story. Although I am currently a lover of books, at 12 I had not yet read a full novel myself. I had never watched an entire series on television. But I knew I had a passion for storytelling, which is probably why this show was so attractive to me. At the time of the show’s airing, I had watched many episodes, but certainly not all of them, and I had never seen the four-part series finale.
As an adult, I realized that I never received closure with this storyline that at one point in time piqued my interest. I have always been intrigued with the supernatural and characters who have amazing powers that transcend anything here on Earth. My sister, being a hardcore Avatar fan since the series’ premiere, encouraged me to watch it with her from start to finish. So, two years ago, as a 23-year-old person, I devoured all three seasons fairly quickly. Although considered a children’s show, and although it is a cartoon, this show touches on such relevant topics. At its core, it is one of the most political kid’s shows I have ever seen.
The story centers around 12-year-old Aang, the world’s current Avatar (a deity-like person who can bend all four elements) who has been frozen in ice for 100 years. In his absence, the Fire Nation--led by a dictatorial Firelord Ozai--has begun a war under the guise of spreading its prosperity with the world. It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain peace among the nations, and Aang quickly discovers that he doesn’t have much time to master all four elements in order to stop the Fire Nation from committing another genocide and conquering the world.
On his journey, Aang meets many characters who help him on his way, showing him and the audience what kind of state the world is in. Of the main characters, we as the audience get to know Katara, the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, who is still grieving over the death of her mother and holds much resentment towards her father. We meet her brother, Sokka, a non-bender who struggles with his masculinity and his leadership role as the oldest male in the village. We meet Toph, a 12-year-old master earthbender who is more powerful than her family understands. We follow the banished Prince Zuko, son of the Firelord, on his quest to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar in order to return home. And in the second season we meet Princess Azula, Zuko’s sociopathic sister, who will show no mercy to anyone that stands in the way of her father’s victory. In addition to these characters, we meet more people throughout our protagonists’ travels, and whether they are a proven ally or sworn enemy, each one has their own part in strengthening Aang’s beliefs and abilities. As the main characters travel from city to city, nation to nation, and as Aang learns the elements, we are able to see the many facets of each character and their influence on the plot, whether they play a major or minor role in the series.
Throughout the story, the characters face many dilemmas: How much can power corrupt a person? Is ignorance truly bliss? Is every villain as heartless as they appear? Is revenge worth tarnishing your morals? Is it reasonable to deny your responsibilities if you never asked for them? What sacrifices would you make for the people you love? Is murder acceptable in order to save the lives of many? The conflicted actions and emotions of the characters bring about a very human question that I think we all ask at one point or another: Who am I? We cringe at the repercussions of their mistakes. We rejoice in the happiness of their triumphs. And above all, we learn that no matter how many poor choices we have made in the past, any trial can be overcome with hope and perseverance.
The writers of this story made me fall in love with the characters and the world they have delicately woven together. Although fictional, the plot mirrors real-life issues that are happening in the world today. It allows me to reflect upon the kind of person I am and examine my own belief system. It makes me question how I would react in similar situations and the length I would go in order to bring about justice where I thought I could. Would I be the character who stands up for what is right or would I stand idly by? All of these reasons, and many more, are why I will always return to this realm of elemental bending and spirit worlds and flying bison and tyrannical monarchs any chance I get.
I Cannot Let my Mind Wander
I cannot let my mind Wander. I have found this to be a dangerous game. Similarly to Red Riding Hood traipsing carelessly through the woods. At first, I admire the flowers and all the pretty things on the surface. But it doesn’t take long to find the darkness--that Big Bad Wolf. Always hovering patiently at the edge of the trail, ready to snatch me up the moment I’m distracted. I cannot let my mind Wander. It has to have a task; a destination. If something is not being learned or created, my mind will venture off in search of other things it hasn’t had the time to think about yet. And sometimes that’s wondrous. Sometimes, it is damaging.
I’ll set off on my journey (to get to grandmother’s house, certainly) but there are so many sights to see and ideas to consider, I find my boots stepping outside the trail. My intentions are always good (mostly). Despite my prospects, it isn’t long before I find myself trapped in a ditch, and the only way out is to dig because a shovel is the only tool I see. I dig until I hit concrete, and when I’m finally exhausted and sweaty and discouraged, someone throws me a rope. Maybe the rope arrives in the form of friend or family, perhaps a spellbinding book or an enrapturing film. Sometimes I realize the rope was there all along, I only needed to harness the strength to climb. Either way, I dig myself out of the hole I unintentionally stumbled into. And when my elbows find the dirt, I pull myself up, plant my feet, uncover the trail once again, and return to my mission (albeit a different one, most likely. Monotony is a surefire way to trip back into the ditch).
I skip along the trail in ignorant bliss for hours, maybe even days or weeks (sometimes months!) but sooner or later, in a moment of rest, my mind decidedly steps off the laden path again, in search of Something Else. But in this grand conquest to discover more about myself or the world in which I live, the Darkness slinks expertly around my ankles, snaking up my legs and finding a home at the base of my stomach. Who knows how long I’ll be renounced to the Heaviness, but the longer I’m trapped there, the louder the whispers become.
They emerge in the form of What Ifs. What if I am not successful? What if I am never loved? What if I never experience true happiness? The darkness provides no answers, only observations and inquiries. The Heaviness keeps me stuck. The Darkness keeps me blind. Whatever truth I knew on the safety of my trail is lost knowledge. Hope and Optimism can’t find their way out of the shadows. This is the price of Wandering.
But every single time I regain control of my limbs and return to the path, anything that occured out in the forest with the Heavy and Dark Things only recurs to me in the form of an unfortunate dream. The thoughts and feelings I experienced were not true or valid. They’re quickly discarded with the weeds and replaced with tulips and eternal sunshine. However, it isn’t wise to ignore these discarded, forgotten things. They never truly go away. Instead, they loiter with the Wolf at the trail’s twists and turns, waiting for an opportunity to advance.
This never-ending path, then, begs only one question: How are we supposed to journey safely on our way to a Destination (especially when the destination itself may be unclear)? The answer is simple: You cannot. You can’t travel safely all of the time, that isn’t how the forest operates. You’ll always be distracted and discouraged and tempted by the wild and dangerous things, the thorny roses or hungry wolves. If you cannot avoid, then you must endure. And to endure, quite often, is to suffer. But through your suffering, you are still accomplishing a great feat--you are still alive. We can’t all survive our paths with bare fists as our only defense. Some of us drag ourselves from the ditch with guns blazing. Others clutch at the remnants of a simple pocket knife.
Regardless of your arsonal, one thing holds true--you made it out, like you always have and like you always will. Recognize your strengths and your supports, because sometimes those may just be the only things keeping you afloat. These things might be a weapon of your own crafting, but other times they may be a smile or a sundae or a poem in an anthology you discovered at a dusty, used-bookstore. You’d be surprised at how powerful the little things are in moments of desperation.
When your mind decides to Wander, only you can stock your toolbox. I cannot let my mind Wander, but when it does, I remember the path and the flowers and the laughter and decide that it’s worth stumbling back to.
A Letter to my 17-year-old Self
It’s been nine years since I was seventeen, and a lot has happened since then. I graduated high school, graduated college (twice), had two apartments and bought my first house, had several jobs and began my teaching career, published two books, made and lost friends, said hello and goodbye to family members and beloved pets. I’ve been in and out of serious and not-so-serious relationships. I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but I’ve always succeeded at many things. It certainly has been a journey, a journey in which I don’t wish to carry any regrets. I like to think of my mistakes as learning experience, and try to wholeheartedly believe that everything happens for a reason, no matter how difficult that may prove at times. Despite this, I’ve constructed a list of advice that I would give my teenage self if we were to sit down and have a conversation over coffee (although 17-years-old Steph would probably be drinking a milkshake since she hated coffee at the time).
First up: Don’t do things half-assed. You will never get to where you want to get in life if you don’t approach every challenge or project with the intent to exert as much effort as possible. If you find yourself only doing the minimum to get by, then cut that out of your life. It isn’t worth wasting your time. If you spend time on things that you don’t genuinely care about, it will show in the outcome.
Next: That boy is not the end of you. Do not place your self-worth in the hands of a temporary boys. They come and go. Some will show you how to love, and others will remind you exactly how you don’t deserve to be treated. These boys are important in shaping who you are, but that’s all they are--lessons to take with you moving forward. Do not place your happiness solely in the hands of those not strong enough to support it.
If you don’t like it, quit it. Come on, Steph, you literally hate physical activities. Why are you in sports? Focus your energy on the musicals, the drama club productions, the writing club projects. Read more books and write more of the things you’re passionate about. You’ve had the chance to experience sportsmanship with your teams, but there comes a time where you need to quit the things that are stressful and focus on the things you truly enjoy doing. Those are the memories and experiences that will stick with you through your adult life!
Here’s a big one: Chill out. Getting a “B” on an essay is not the end of the world. Friend drama is not the end of the world. Not making the team is not the end of the world. You can get so easily side-tracked by frivolous things without even attempting to look at the bigger picture. Some of your high school experiences truly will not matter in the long run, and you need to try to distinguish between these things better! Some things are worth getting hyped up about, and some are not.
Write! Your love of writing does not waver throughout the years. In fact, your drive to become the best writer you can be only grows stronger. Keep working towards your goals because you WILL achieve them. I’m so proud of you for finding what you love and sticking to it even if it isn’t easy, even if it isn’t popular. Even if you’ve got no one else to relate to when it comes to what drives you. You determined long ago that this is your absolute dream and you continue to work harder at it every day. I admire that about you. I teach students your age now and I couldn’t imagine them sitting down and writing a book, and at this point, you’ve done just that several times. In two short years you’ll be published and it will be one of the best years of your life. Your dedication and talent continues to inspire the person I am today. Thank you for never giving up on your goals.
"It's Just a Zit"
When I was in third grade, I was diagnosed with hormonal acne. It’s the kind of acne you get, not because your face is dirty or you wear too much makeup, but the kind that manifests due to the type and amount of hormones your body produces. Although I would not classify the condition of my skin as severe acne, since luckily I was taken to a dermatologist for early intervention, that does not eradicate the fact that my blemishes have been negatively affecting my life since childhood.
I have been to two different dermatologists and have tried virtually every prescription facial cleanser, wash, gel, cream, pill, and anything in between. Some medications have been more successful than others, but the only true cure for my acne is either time or a severe shift in hormone balance. What I’m about to say next is not something I have shared with many people, but I think it is important to recognize since it is something that was very real for me and still affects me to this day. I have been on birth control pills since I was in seventh grade. They were prescribed to me by my dermatologist in order to regulate my hormones, hence clearing my acne. They have proven moderately successful, however, when I was sixteen, I switched the brand of birth control pills. I did not believe that changing to a brand name was going to have negative--or really, any--effects on me at all. All brands should do the same thing, I presumed. Unfortunately, the drastic change in my hormones caused a significant portion of my hair to fall out (female hair loss is already a gene in my family as well). My once thick and luscious curls were now very fine and thin, exposing my scalp more than it ever was. I immediately switched to another birth control brand, which triggered another bout of shedding, but eventually I experienced slight hair growth and although my hair has never been what it used to be, it’s at a point now that I can be content with.
The only medication that works the best on me are antibiotics. This is considered only a bandaid to the true problem, however, because one should not take these pills for more than six months since your body can become immune to them. Another pill has been suggested to me, but it will affect my hormone levels, and although that is exactly what I need to clear my acne, it is not a risk that I think necessary considering my past difficulties with hormone balancing (and I can’t afford to lose any more hair at this point). The last option that the dermatologist always mentions is Acutane, and although this drug is highly effective in clearing acne, I do not deem my skin severe enough to deal with the monthly bloodwork or nasty side effects that comes alongside this drug.
Acne inhibits me from being the confident person that I am. If I am having a bad skin day, I find it more of a challenge to smile and look people in the eyes for fear that this will draw too much attention to the imperfections on my face. A lot of the times, my family tells me that they can’t even see the acne that I harp about, but I can still feel it. I still know it’s there. Because of these struggles, I have been dappling in makeup for a very long time. At first, I used makeup simply to cover the large, red bumps on my face, but since then I have come to know it as a form of self-expression. It is no longer a necessity for me, but it is something I choose to do and something I enjoy.
Despite my love of makeup, I truly wish that someday I will have a face that I am content enough with so that I do not feel obligated to wear it. I want to be able to go to the grocery store fresh-faced and not feel the--likely fictional--gazes, judging my complexion. The women who have blemish-free faces do not seem to understand the struggle, for I have had several comments towards me about the amount of makeup or the situation I am in that does not normally require makeup. The truth is, even if my acne disappeared tomorrow, it will still be difficult for me to flaunt my makeupless skin due to the amount of oil it secretes, the redness that plagues certain areas of my face, or the scars from my childhood that hold a permanent place on my skin. I envy the girls who don’t have to think twice in the morning when they are getting ready for work. Even though I have a passion for makeup, it would be nice to feel like I have the option to skip it if I want to. When I was in high school, I played sports, and I would wear makeup to practices even though I knew how silly it seemed. I could not build up the courage to let my teammates see what I looked like without it.
Acne has been a setback that has frustrated me for the majority of my life, a setback that I am constantly reminded of due to the scars on my face and my back. I feel that it is a part of my identity, and I don’t want it to be. At twenty-four years old, it continues to be a major inhibitor in my life. I look in the mirror after I shower and wonder when I can rip off my blemished skin to see my true face underneath. Most of the times I am too blinded by my acne to notice anything positive about my features. As a person who preaches confidence and self-worth, I feel hypocritical as I think such negative thoughts about my outwards appearance. I don’t want to be this way anymore, and it is something I attempt to work on every single day. Perhaps someday my face will be as flawless as I’ve always dreamed it would be. But until then, I need to work on accepting me for who I am and not letting this diagnosis define me.