What should we hang onto, after this year in college?

    Photo by the author.

    The other day, I was cleaning out a supply closet for Project Wildcat when I stumbled upon a small stack of forgotten, enveloped letters sitting among a messy tangle of ropes. As soon as I picked them up, I could tell they were the kind you wrote to yourself to be opened at a later date. Silently, I slipped the abandoned envelopes into my bag, imagining they were better read by someone than by no one at all.

    Leaving Norris, letters in tow, I had the strange sensation that the world had turned a bright, grassy green, and I hadn’t even noticed. In a sudden rush, I tore the envelopes open and began to read. Dated May 2002, the words were strangely familiar. One letter closed with a last-minute reminder: “Cherish these next few years. Freshman year went by fast, and the next three will go by faster. Don’t waste it.” I wrote almost the exact same phrases several weeks ago, when I was instructed to write one of these letters, and again before that, four years earlier as a freshman in high school.

    How can we make any sense of this advice, when we’re all writing it to ourselves as we watch the years fly behind us in a colorful, indistinct ribbon? As this year winds down, it seems like the common sentiment among students — freshmen and seniors alike — is shock at how fast the year has gone. But hardly anyone appears to have time to reflect about it.

    I’ve started to wonder if it’s even possible to be a sentimentalist in college, when you don’t live in the same place for more than nine months, when friends can seem more transient than permanent, and when you hardly have time to wash your dirty laundry, let alone fondly ponder yesteryear. Looking around my room, it’s easy to see that I’ve tried. My desk is cluttered with Sharpie-dated champagne corks and Sponge Bob toys from BK kid’s meals. Next to the snapshots of my best friend and little brothers, I’ve hung an Iron & Wine ticket stub, a bar night wristband, and a dog-eared map I used to navigate a Pwild camping trip.

    I’ve always had an unquenchable desire to record. I may have moved on from the spiral notebooks of sixth grade, filled with looping purple jelly pen, but the sentimentality persists — only now it’s recorded in a haphazard collection of spurious Gmails sent to myself and dear-diarys mashed between philosophy notes. I just want to capture each patch and quilt it together into that bundly blanket of experience that makes up our lives: the silly and the dark, the bad and the happy. But there comes a point when you get so swept up in this that you miss out on the flow of spontaneity and beauty of the present.

    As the conclusion of yet another school year looms, there is still the persistent fear that the days are slipping away fast and unnumbered — my mind running over the things I aspired to do, measuring it up to what I did, and counting the many disparities — but it’s silly to dwell. Spring at college seems a strange paradox. While the world wakes up from winter and comes alive, students think about peeling their posters down from their wall and boxing up their books, bombarded with solicitations from shipping and storage companies that serve as a constant reminder of our temporariness.

    Spring shouldn’t be about endings, though. Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune ran a column by Garrison Keillor, titled “This Spring, Let’s All Be Ourselves.” The subtitle of the article declares that “the beauty of May is that the whole country is more or less on the same page, called Spring, in Minnesota or California or Georgia or Vermont”. And it’s true. Here we are. Keillor advises that, despite our entrenchment in this individualist culture, we “enjoy this brief period of consanguinity.”

    Keillor knows what he’s talking about. In the wake of Facebook egotism and all the lines we draw amongst ourselves, you have to realize it’s a day-to-day life and remember that the details we think define us aren’t as important as we believe. It’s easy to be overly sentimental, holding on tightly to everything that makes you special and letting it accumulate, cluttering your desk. But at its extreme, sentimentality accomplishes nothing. What really defines us, after all, isn’t what makes us unique, but what we have in common with each other, despite how alone we might feel. “Here we are,” writes Keillor, “in a green paradise, stomachs churning, eyeballs flickering…feeling alienated from the people around us who feel similarly alienated from us.”

    We all just end up writing the same things in our letters to ourselves anyhow — take comfort in that.


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