The library of my mind

In this personal narrative, Features Editor Kiersten Dugan illustrates the inner workings of her mind.


Kiersten Dugan

Dugan described moving to New York City for college as the start of a new journey. (Image courtesy of Kiersten Dugan)

Kiersten Dugan, Features Editor

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a Library.” —Jorge Luis Borges

As I prepared to leave my home and start my journey somewhere new, I thought about every home I’ve had to leave — every place that was more than just a house. Where you grow up is where you grow your roots. The roots that sustain you and give you life. It’s a common question — where are you from? It can tell a lot about a person: where they lived, what environment they grew up in, what language they spoke and how they spent their days. Sharing where you came from can give others room to judge you, negatively or positively. It provides the first talking point in a conversation with a new person.

I started my journey somewhere new, in the biggest city in the country — a city with residents from every corner of the world and every small town in America. Introductions are necessary wherever you go, but here in New York City, the question seemed to come at me from every direction. The thought of dodging the question lurked in the back of my mind because I didn’t have a clear answer. Why should I be apprehensive about answering such a question? The place where I flew from wasn’t home and neither was the place where I was born. I had homes everywhere, but not the single “home” every Hallmark movie glorifies. I had the home I carried with me at all times; the home no one could ever take away from me. The kind of place that never leaves you.

Dugan lists Arizona as one of the many places she once called home. (Image courtesy of Kiersten Dugan)

The smell of saltwater taffy and screams of joy from Jenkinson’s Boardwalk. The thrum of a bongo and the crackle and pop of fresh plantains frying. The sweltering heat of the Sonoran Desert. The all-consuming dust storms of the East Valley. The shores of New Jersey, San Juan, Puerto Rico, the East Valley of Arizona. Now, in New York City, the background noise of fast-paced walking and the lights that never go dark. The places I’ve lived and the things that I will never forget. These things bring me comfort; they bring me home. They all make up the home I’ve built for myself in my head. My home is the collection of memories I have stored away.

My memories present themselves as books on endless shelves in a library rivaling that of Alexandria — the greatest library of all time. Each moment is tucked away in the page of a book with similar moments on shelves; organized and overwhelming. Each book ready to be read or ignored. Every moment of peace, anxiety and dread tucked away for future reference. A page with the first memory of my little sister, crying endlessly. A page with my mother teaching me how to draw flowers in the midst of spring in our quaint home in New Jersey. A book with my father leaving for all his business trips and the emotions that went with it. A book with my mother’s endless advice that I will never admit was helpful. A shelf with moments of pure joy and discovery as my parents took my sister and I to new places, exploring the unknown. A shelf with the anxious moments and panic attacks that ran their course and made me doubt everything I know. This library is ever growing and changing; new memories arrive, old ones change tone and shelves are reorganized. I’ve wondered how I might share the memories and the shelves that formed the person I am today. This library is who I am. It’s the answer to “where am I from?” Places have always been other destinations, but home was always within me. How do I share my whole library with a stranger when striking up a conversation?

Dugan lived on the shores of New Jersey and Puerto Rico before moving to New York. (Image courtesy of Kiersten Dugan)

I identify as a woman, as Puerto Rican, as white, as an American and as a college student. I’ve never struggled with my identity and who I am — I’ve only struggled with how to show it. My background and upbringing is important to me and is the essence of how I live my life. Change and the unfamiliar are the backbone to everything I do because I cherish them. My personal history taught me that. I don’t simply answer the question “where are you from?” with one word. I can’t. It’s a lot more complex than that. Identity is the flame of the candle that is our lives. It melts away and reveals our truest form. It brings light to our lives. My identity is stored away in all the books in my library, burning bright. 

I can see my future, bright as the flame of my candle. I see the houses that I will never call home and the memories that I will add to my library. I see the places that I will visit, inhabit and then leave. I don’t see myself doing what I always longed for — establishing a single home. I used to yearn for the stability of one home, one group of friends, one town that I knew like the back of my hand. I wanted it so badly that I never stopped to see the beauty of its absence. I grew around the absence like flowers between the cracks of a sidewalk. I am who I am today not just because of all the things I’ve had, but also the things I haven’t.

I don’t see a definitive future. I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in five years. I don’t know if I will be married in 10 years. I don’t know if I will ever have kids of my own. But how could I raise them with the values I hold important to me? Never giving them a home seems cruel, even though I know it isn’t. My partner couldn’t possibly understand the library in its entirety. How could I expect someone else to simply drop everything they know to follow me around the world, never having a home base? I might love the unknown and the adventure that comes with it, but that doesn’t mean it is without its obstacles.

I don’t see the things that characterize a conventional life. I see the glow behind my eyes that only materializes with pure joy. I see the wrinkles around strangers’ eyes, creasing from the smile within. I see my library bursting at the seams with memories never forgotten. I plan to build a future with these moments in mind — putting my dreams first, helping those around me and basking light on everyone’s flames around me. The unknown is what makes up my future and I’m okay with that. I cherish and look forward to it. Everyone has a candle with a flame, a metaphorical library of their own and a light waiting to take hold. The identity we claim builds the foundation of our life. It represents our past, our present and influences our future. Identity is ever changing because we as people are always changing, growing and extending our roots. I want to take my experience and explore the identities of others, learning what makes people who they are. I want to know the flame and the fire of their essence and the memories tucked away in their own libraries. I want the flowers to continue to bloom even amidst the many cracks in the sidewalk.  

Contact Kiersten Dugan at [email protected].