This is what you go through, the thumbing through the hand of cards to see what you’ve got and what you can do with your hand. You’re gonna get sadness in spades. I’ve seen enough boys walking bulldogs on ropes and Global Health girl Facebook photos of unvaccinated children in Cambodia and New York Times notifications buzzing on my phone at 4 a.m. telling me about 200 abducted girls and trailers for movies about pretty people with cancer and heard enough rape jokes and hiccupy laughs from genuine alcoholics and read enough Buzzfeed lists and terrible poetry to know that the crumminess out there is endless.
The very first piece of advice my mother gave me when we were on the road towards Middlebury (with faint urgency and hysteria in her voice because she was realizing the length of the list of life lessons she had forgotten to teach me including how to shoot a gun and how to operate a chainsaw) was “don’t get involved with a professor.” Holds up, I hear. But you should get in with a professor. Find your mentor, your expert, your spirit guide. You can have more than one. I have developed almost irrational loyalty towards professors on this campus, probably unbeknownst to them. Screw course evaluations. Go into that person’s office hours and talk to them. Write them a thank you note at the end of the semester. Figure out a research project that they would be jazzed to advise. Learn how to navigate a professional collaboration. It’s cliche to cry in a professor’s office. Do it anyway if you feel like it. Some of them will blink at you calmly and think about how many more papers they have to grade before they get to go home to a six-pack of Longtrail. That’s what I’d do if I were a professor.
I sat in Timi Mayer’s office at the end of my sophomore spring and said, “I can’t do anything for anyone else in this world. Why do you keep doing this? What’s the point?” I was crying like a chump. I saw her whole face soften. “All I can do is teach,” she said. “All I can do is try to make students think. Critically think.” I knew this already. I knew why I was kicking my own ass, bending over backwards for seemingly little payoff and a pile of debt to get myself a liberal arts education. I know I am not worthless, that I have something to offer, that I am not yet a broken person. But I often need someone other than my paid therapist (who I absolutely do not believe for a second) to tell me to my face. Those moments of rhetorical validation, between you and the professor you respect? Irreplaceable. Don’t write that paper so that your professor gives you grade A. Write it so you can stretch your fingers and toes as far as they reach from your body, so that your professor can see that you are not just college student, you are a person who is trying, a person at work.
Isn’t it funny how often this pricey (we/I love to talk about $$$) experience often feels just so cut-rate? Like at the end of a paper or a party, I feel post-coital but still unfulfilled? When my mother comes here she walks around campus, re-upholstered in new grass and spotless branding and sighs in jealousy. I am never going to have this place and time again, this bargain brand form of adult lite stocking a country club bathroom, these rooms of rampant, brambled, fumbling gecko children all squawking for attention or fetal positioning to disappear. I am trying to see the beauty in the final lo-fi montage of belly buttons and blinking cursors and coffee breath and dorm room bed flops and Proctor oatmeal. Somehow try to remember, even if this seems like a disappointing Woody Allen film times racism times rape culture divided by old-fashioned animal cruelty projected on the shiny carapace of the self you thought you were going to be (an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life) that it’s also the soft carousel of your friend taking all the dishes to the conveyor belt or solidarity in the basement of the film lab at 3 a.m. or the Gampitheater with a vase of lilacs and strawberries and OutKast playing from an iPhone for a birthday breakfast or an entire discussion class gaining fast on a desert mirage called cultural collective memory.
When it’s the first snow I sit in Johnson Memorial Building’s lounge, and stare up at the skylight in the honey-wood ceiling. Proctor Booth room is best before 9 a.m., soundtracked to VPR Classical and water with lemon. There is an ice cream machine on the sixth floor of Bi Hall as well as the greenhouse. Go there in the dead of winter for oxygen and chlorophyll and chipwiches. I was once told that you can get inside the organ chamber in Mead Chapel through a little door, though I have never tried it. You have to be in the library very early if you want to claim the SSR (Secret Study Room) in the back right corner on the ground floor. Sama’s has the cheapest coffee. Use the Bike Shop. Hillcrest air feels like the Fiji water of airs. Use the outhouse in the Organic Garden. Use the craft supplies in the Crest Room. Sleep on as many couches as possible. The first time I saw Facilities edging all the sidewalks, I just stared and stared. That is a crazy thing, to edge all these sidewalks! That is a beautiful, insane task! Admire the edged sidewalks. There are a lot of things happening “behind the scenes.” Figure out what they are.
Here’s a good game to play: search your email inbox for instances of the word “stressed” or “panic attack.” You’ll realize you’ve been here before. Some selections from a four-year stint:
December 2013: And maybe I’m just writhe-ing and circular-stress-thinking more than usual because 40 assorted pages due by Thursday will not get done and definitely not ease the minds of people who I think I’ve let down and betrayed because they maybe saw potential in me and I am systematically failing them or “not enough sleep and too many drugs”
May 2013: My harddrive crashed! I am back from sea which was nice but I am dumped back into stressland again because today as I got in on the night bus, I came down with a miserable fever. Ideal. And everyone is gone on spring break except for my one roommate who was tripping balls all day in my house on LSD while I lay in bed and shivered to the tempo of Pink Floyd or whatever
December 2012: wildly frustrated on verge of tears and hyperventilation in the GIS lab, no can do.
September 2012: i almost had a mini panic attack and then on my way home i stopped off at weybridge to say hi to bekah and on the way there i saw a sad bro chasing after a very unrelenting and prim girl who was stalking away angrily and he was calling and calling “Louisa! Louisa!!!! WAIT PLEASE DON’T RUN AWAY FROM ME!” and it was quite tragic.
March 2011: i skipped class today to work on the three essays i have due tomorrow. IM SO STRESSED. I NEED THIS TO BE ENDING. nose to the grindstone until fri…here we go.
September 2010: I almost have a panic attack every day just thinking about how much amazing stuff is offered here and that it is not humanly possible to take advantage of it all in just four years.
Hang in there, lil’ buddy. You’re gonna be fine.
My friend Bekah brought this term into my life: “Big Feelings.” She stole it from one of her friends in Seattle who works at a preschool with little kids, many of whom have been abused or neglected. When the kids are experiencing an overwhelming emotion-cloud of feelings they can’t process, understand or deal with in an effective or socially great way (good or bad)…they call that having Big Feelings. Your Big Feelings are valid, and you don’t have to answer to anyone. No one ever has to ruin everything, not even me. Some things you can just enjoy and let run through your hair like Moroccan oil and pour into your heart of Spring Breakerz embers and spread and fizz like a mimosa.
I rediscovered my mother’s other classic piece of advice when I was playing that email inbox game earlier — in response to some minor crisis, she wrote back: “You should, as I still like to say, put your hair in a pony tail, splash cold water on your face and get real.”
Artwork by CHARLOTTE FAIRLESS