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Saying Goodbye

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

The summer I was eleven I got a hand-me-down dress from my cousin. The dress was perfect. It was pale green with little orange flowers and it fit exactly right. It wasn’t frilly. It was simple and wonderful. Wearing it made me feel quietly special, like Mary Lennox and Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls all rolled into one. I wore my green dress often that summer and into the fall, while the leaves were still on the trees and most days were warm. But the next June it didn’t fit right anymore. It pinched my shoulders and didn’t even reach the top of my knees. I was devastated. I wasn’t ready to give up that quiet specialness.

When I run through the Crum there’s a particular spot that makes me feel like I’m wearing that dress again. Past the water tower there is a trail where spicebush and witch-hazel flank either side of the path and bend towards each other, creating an archway. When leaves are just starting to appear on the trees the entire trail turns a pale yellow-green. There is never anyone there at 5:00 in the afternoon and it’s as if it exists for me alone. Shadows dance on the ground ahead of me as I run through my own light-filled tunnel—quietly special.

More often than not, goodbyes have been something that have happened to me and not something I have chosen for myself. In some ways graduation is no exception. I have been working towards graduation for four years now, and also its imminent approach is beyond my control.

There are undoubtedly aspects of Swarthmore I will not miss. I will not miss the stress of living in a community that uses overwork as its predominant coping mechanism. I will not miss the mentality that academia is the be-all-end-all of knowing. I will not miss the desperation of  trying to simultaneously understand a scientific paper and comfort a panicked friend at 2 am.

And there are many things at Swarthmore that I don’t feel quite ready to leave behind — my professors, my friends, the Crum. The lesson in that dress though, I think, is that saying goodbye is nuanced. I am saying goodbye to the Swarthmore community and to the Crum Woods. But I’m not saying goodbye to how these things have made me feel. I am not saying goodbye to stress, or desperation, or awe, or gratitude.

The summer I was twelve, when I finally did concede defeat and put my green dress in the pile of clothes that no longer fit, I had no idea that seven years down the road a trail in a small Pennsylvanian woods would make me feel just as quietly special. I’m trying to hold onto that now as we take on our last week of classes as undergraduates, tumbling closer to the inevitable end that is graduation. I am going to feel stress and desperation and gratitude and awe again, in new communities and new relationships and in many situations I would never expect to feel them. For me, there is comfort in knowing that I found quiet specialness both in a well-worn dress and years later on an early-spring woods trail. It means this is probably not the last time I will find it.  

In Defense of the Past

in Columns/Musings of Mariani/Opinions by

In my hometown of West Chester, Pennsylvania, my childhood friend Jordan Digiacomo’s parents owned a combination laundromat/carwash/dry cleaner called “The Purifier.” Around the holidays they would also have a house cleaning service. Eventually, Jordan’s parents got divorced and his mom opened up a new, rival combination laundromat/carwash/dry cleaner with a house cleaning service around the holidays called “Stacey’s.” The funny thing was, her name was Leslie.

What this example goes to show is that besides the fact that the past is the only thing that’s real and knowable, since the future’s neither and the present’s ephemerality makes it imperceptible, the light reaching your eyes is already old, the past has all your happy memories and best experiences, even the ones you do not remember; the past has your mom; the past has people in love and people crying because we can lose so much in this precious, sacred life. I do not need to tell you this because humans all find the past beautiful. An imagined future is just an idealized past.

The City of Philadelphia is a beautiful example of the past.

I remember on the unseasonably warm afternoon the people of Philadelphia existed beautifully in Rittenhouse Square, sitting in benches or on the grass, walking to get somewhere or meet someone, playing music for tips, getting signatures for causes, evangelizing, playing board games, reading, talking, writing, drinking coffee, smoking tobacco and smoking marijuana and living well but gently. I do not know any City very well, but if the people of New York are substantial and formidable, the people of Philadelphia are honest and vulnerable. Most of the people on the street look happy, but you can easily imagine them crying. The teenagers and college students break your heart as they are so transparently in the bloom of their youth. It is a romantic and a practical City, where everyone seems charming including the hipsters and the businessmen. All sorts of people walk the streets, comfortable being around all sorts of people. A number of eccentrics preach religiously on the street corners, and young women hand you the business card of a yoga studio and ask “Do you meditate?” Everything is sort of shabby and sort of classy at the same time, and everything is old fashioned, and it seems for a moment American civilization is not a contradiction.

Indeed, even our present problems are only the fulfillment of historical promises. We can only explain Trump’s victory by examining the past. But the debates around the reasons for Trump’s victory are only important insofar as they reveal the divisions which are tearing apart American society and making everything politically impossible. Our national problems did not start with Donald Trump. Since around 1968— and maybe even before— our problems have been remarkably constant. The economy has been largely dysfunctional with only a few breaks during the peaks of stock market bubbles. Access to our educational system is increasingly unequal and untenable. The transportation system has been growing inadequate, debilitated, and unsustainable. The environment is facing collapse.  Universal war seems like a very realistic possibility. Democracy seems non-existent and perhaps even undesirable. The young are disillusioned. And politics of whatever kind, electoral or activist, do not seem to accomplish much anymore, in part because political coalitions seem impossible to form in a society where the different social groups seem so intensely isolated from each other.

I will now tell you some of the most dear things I miss about the past.
I miss not feeling so lost. I miss being news editor of the Phoenix. I miss crying the second day of college because my childhood was over. I miss having first period English with my two best friends during senior year, and I miss having eighth period study hall every day. I miss driving around with my friends. I miss going to assemblies and making fun of everything with my friends. I miss mowing the lawn in the summer. I miss going to high school football games. I miss having more of the Beatles to listen to. I miss becoming obsessed with Kanye West. I miss the first time I drove alone. I miss walking to Wawa in middle school to buy the “New York Times.” I miss Ash Wednesday when the priest would whisper to you “Remember man you are dust, and to dust you shall return” and make a cross with ashes on your forehead. I miss the last days of school.  I miss real Christmas trees and snow and sledding and summers at the JCC pool. I miss cameras. I miss film and papers being stacked on the stairs of my house. I miss drinking Shirley Temples at Edgemont Country Club. I miss going to Christmas Mass with the family when the priests would squirt everybody with holy water and burn incense. I miss being a kid and my dad would pitch a whiffle ball to me and I’d hit it. I miss forgetting to write my name at the top of the paper. I miss the ocean when I was a kid. I miss going to my aunt’s deli in Avalon, New Jersey and if I kissed her she gave me gum. I miss going to Blockbuster every Friday. I miss worrying about the price of gas. I miss making fun of George Bush. I miss being forced to play golf and then afterwards drinking soda and eating hot dog in the snack bar. I miss reading the comics from the newspaper on Saturdays. I miss crying in elementary school because they cut down all the dandelions.

On snow and God and Swarthmore

in Columns/Musings of Mariani/Opinions by

The snow began to fall early Tuesday morning and, like some kind of non-dystopian Silicon Valley technology firm, delightfully disrupted our lives. Classes were cancelled, local children sledded the rolling hills of our campus, and many a Swarthmorean sported scarves and sweaters and other such beautiful winter saratorial festoonment. I, myself ,was quite lackadaisical and unproductive as I passed the time with a few friends, soaking my shoes in the slush and engaging in the philosophical speculation that characterizes so many conversations at any college, especially one as liberal and artsy as our own.

This column will be a more personal note than is usual for me. My numerous loyal readers will know that my last three columns have been about contemporary American politics and society. I have not told you much about myself. But seeing the children sledding down the hills in front of Parrish Beach and around Mccabe Library stirred within me nostalgic feelings and life reflections that I want to share here.

I feel lost and I feel loss. I do not know what to do anymore and I feel that a sense of self I once possessed is gone. In our existential age, youth is when you are supposed to question who you are and what you believe, when the values and personhood given to you by your society and family are subject to critical examination so that you can redefine your own being. But I am worried I never had a personhood or values to begin with. I feel rootless. I feel that I was blind my whole life and did not know it. Now that I have gained sight, all I see is fog. This is not necessarily always unpleasant but it is certainly unsustainable.

Coming to college has expanded my worldview, but I do not know if I have grown enough as a person to meet the challenges of maturity. In high school my life was small and I was fairly dissatisfied, but I was the master of my domain. Teachers liked me, I had a good reputation in my school, I knew who I could trust, who was right, and who was wrong. Since coming to college, I have encountered a wider variety of people and viewpoints than I ever did in high school. I have modified a few of my beliefs and habits and have, in a few small ways, improved. But, for the most part, I think that I have failed to live up to the challenge of adulthood. I have acted like a child and it has hurt and upset people around me. I am not trying to be overly harsh on myself; honest, fair self-examination has led me to the conclusion that I have not been living up to my own standards and principles. I think that nostalgia can be beautiful, but for the past several years I have used it to excuse my own immaturity and fear of becoming more self-sufficient.

My problem, and I suspect the problem of a lot of my friends, is that we do not believe in anything. We know things and we study arguments and defend certain positions, but I feel that in order to really believe in something you have to live it. I’ll remain lost so long as I do not try to settle anywhere. I feel like my fear is that I will settle in the wrong place. It is easy for me to see how things could go wrong, how certain positions can lead people astray. But my brother, who is older and wiser than me, gave me the advice that it is better and more important to pursue any goal than to have a perfect goal. We are all trying to get to the same place; the land of milk and honey and social justice and self-actualization. We all know we have to take our own paths to get there.  

To continue with the path metaphor, I feel like I am standing at a fork in the road with a signpost pointing to twenty different paths I could take. I know where I want to get to, but I do not really know which one of the roads will take me there. So I have been waiting in front of the signpost and not going anywhere. Perhaps if I choose a path I will not be going directly to my destination, but I will probably be getting closer to it. Even if I go down a path that takes me further from my destination, I will only learn that by getting a better idea of how to get where I want to go, which will not happen by waiting in front of the signpost. Since I do not want to be lost anymore, I should go ahead and get somewhere.

 

Swarthmore Reflections, Ruth Talbot

in Campus Journal by

Z.L Zhou/The PhoenixI have four clear memories of my first day at Swarthmore — more feelings at this point. The acute humiliation of a cool frat bro helping me carry a literal arms’ worth of tampons from Ben West to my dorm. The panic when I first stepped into my empty, ugly Willets double and thought, “How can this be home?” The social anxiety of coming up with something witty but offhand for the devil’s party game: icebreakers. And lastly, several emotions, jumbled and stacked, loud and strong, as I sat beneath a large tree and said goodbye to my crying father.

I don’t remember the subtleties of that girl, the girl who wanted to be an English or History major. Who was definitely going to run track and probably going to write for the Phoenix. Who had no idea what programming was or how to plan a trip through Spain without her parents’ help.

As this is a reflection on my time here, it seems fitting that I would reflect on all the progress I’ve made. After all, people tell you that college changes you. You’ll grow, mature, and hardly recognize yourself at the end. True, I do psych and computer science now. I’ve lived abroad and gone almost an entire year without going home to California. Next year I’m moving, not to San Francisco, as I always planned, but to Chicago, an even hellier weather hell than Philadelphia.

But here’s the deal. When I was little, my older brother was precocious. My mom would sometimes have him do math problems for friends. She’d turn to little six-year-old Steven and say, “Steven — if a train is going 60 miles an hour for 500 miles, how long will it take to get to its destination?” And the adorable cyborg would promptly reply, “Eight and one-third hours.” Then she’d turn to me and say, “Ruth, can you make an odd face?” And I’d scrunch up my face into the bizarrest look I could muster.

When I was in high school, my AP Euro teacher caught me doing the macarena in an empty hallway. By myself. With no music. I’d really like to be able to say there was a reason, but I don’t remember one.

At least it’s all in the past, right?

Last week I walked into a pole, apologized to the pole, and then muttered at myself about how idiotic that was. That’s right, when I’m feeling really embarrassed, I do the coolest thing one could possibly do: I talk to myself about how embarassing I am.

My primary form of communication remains making faces at people. I’m still bad enough at basic math that I’ll never be 100 percent sure the example problem I used above is correct. I recently spent hours drawing the artwork for my brother’s wedding invitation, only to forget to seal the envelope when I mailed it to him. The envelope made it to California. The drawing did not. My ideal night still involves at least a pint of Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. If crying in public was a sport, I’d get more medals in it than I ever did in track. Despite what I tell people, I have no idea what I want to do with my life.

When I set foot at Swarthmore, I assumed that the only sure thing to change would be that in four years, none of the idiotic shit I did before college would still be happening. Truth be told, it’s the only thing that’s held constant. I’m lost, and I’m awkward, and based on 18 year-old Ruth’s expectations, I know I didn’t figure it all out in college. But that’s okay, because I know whatever happens, I’ll have myself to talk to about it.

 

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