In winter of 2021, I published a blog post called Campus from the Inside. It was about how, regardless of whether you tour in person, look at the virtual tour online, or don't tour at all, you can never tell exactly how a campus will look to you once you've lived in it. As I walk around Oberlin's campus, I usually have some kind of internal dialogue and visual memory narrating to me the places I'm passing by. This is where you tried to study that one time but ended up just watching your friend do headstands. This is where you realized that the little white flowers everywhere are also Aster. This is where, this is where, this is where.
In that post, I said that I knew my internal campus map would look different a year from then. Almost two years later, I can definitely say that I was right. It's amazing how much changes year to year when you're in college— we're in such a transient state the whole time. Every aspect of my life is happening within a mile from the rest, and the setting of all that experience changes form along with the experiences themselves. The way you interact with a place reflects the ways it transforms you. This is where you empathized with your friend's yell-rant session. This is where you got the two heaviest free pumpkins of your life and your arms were sore for days from carrying them home.
I wrote in early 2021, "There is this emotional geography that keeps unfolding." It's an emotional geography because it's mostly the memories that have some strong emotion attached to them that I come to associate with a particular place. A lot of my friends share this experience, too. This is where you rode a bike for the first time in two years and the seat was just the right height for your legs and you felt like you were flying. This is where you got rejected, twice. How do you get rejected on the same sidewalk twice?
If you had to say what all the places looked and felt like to you, rather than just their names or the function they were meant to serve, it would be way too embarrassing to ever show someone around campus. Yet here I am, recounting parts of my internal Oberlin map for you. (Where's the line between radical vulnerability and oversharing in a blog post?) This is where six of you scrambled off to that one night when your friend said she wanted to flash her titties to the moon and everyone thought that was a great idea. This is where you walked into a jazz party by accident and stayed for the rest of the night.
The way my emotional geography has kept unfolding since I was a second-year is that now I see it in layers of associations with people, time periods, and activities. If an hour ago something made me think of the spring semester of my first year, and then I pass a place where I made a memory during that time, then that's the memory that gets to label the place in that moment. Many of the spots on campus are now places that hold several of my memories, all happening on top of each other, one emerging louder than the others according to wherever my mind and heart find themselves in that moment. This is where you and your co-instructor practiced massaging each other every morning of winter term before starting on the presentations and lesson plans. This is where you take the compost out every crew shift.
The other way my emotional geography has kept unfolding is the size that the map seems to me. When I was a first-year, Oberlin's campus felt impossibly huge and maze-like. Of course, the people present at any given moment are a part of the campus. In those first few months, I met so many people that I could never guess which of them were going to end up being significant in my life. I remember hearing a fourth-year in a dance class opening circle complain that the campus was "so small." Shocked, I responded that every time I met someone new, I thought, "Welp, I'm never gonna see that person again." The two fourth-years who were in that class practically howled with laughter. Their reaction makes a lot more sense to me now: by your fourth year at Oberlin you know a lot of the people here. The campus is no longer big. It gets smaller if you get tired of the people you know. Even smaller once you've built complex emotional histories with those people. Even smaller if you're avoiding any of them. This is where walking through the hallways feels a little bit like you’re in high school again. This is where the ground was covered in slippery thick white for miles but on the morning of a breakup you picked a direction and walked in it for hours, hours, must have been five hours before you floated back home.
Of course, if you also have an abundance of people you love on this campus, like I do, then knowing so many people doesn't just shrink your campus map. It enlivens it, too. The pandemic hit in March of my first year, and after that point I lost my near-endless capacity for joyful solitude. It took me a while to realize this, but a lot of the Oberlin memories I'd made by the middle of my second year were just different variations of me feeling really isolated. Since life at Oberlin has become active again, I have so many more social memories clinging to my view of the campus. The collective experience is part of what makes it stick: my memories are intertwined with, and strengthened by, hundreds of other people's memories. This is where the OUI board sits after a long and exhausting meeting when we decide we need to take a group selfie as a reward. This is where Professor Emeka would take Capoeira to have class outside and our hands would get exfoliated from the sand on the ground.
I like the feeling of a low, baseline familiarity that is always splashing up and surprising itself. I like knowing this campus while never knowing which corners of it are about to turn over and offer me more possibility. I like that I never expect the mystery anymore, but that the stories still come— friends of friends who I didn't know existed, sections of the Conservatory I've never laid eyes on, new meanings inverting old Peters classrooms. The stories evade prediction. To my mind, they stay alive in the bricks and tree trunks, bike racks and hedgerows that hold the edges of a space. The labeled points on my emotional geography are countless now. If I were to map it, vignettes of scenes would cut into the landscape and interrupt each other. They would bleed over the lines marking paths and buildings and landmarks. They would show you layers upon layers of ways that my view of Oberlin is shaped and colored by the home I've made here.
This is where you stargaze.
This is where you held rehearsals even though you felt like you had no idea how to hold rehearsals.
This is where you taught an ExCo even though you felt like you had no idea how to teach an ExCo.
This is where you douse your meals in adobo or thyme or garlic when you’re paranoid about certain people not seasoning.
This is where you hyperventilate up the stairs because it’s 9:29am on a Tuesday and you ran.
This is where you had that terrible argument. Jeez, that was rough.
This is where you updated the new MRC staff on the state of the faculty and staff UndocuAlly training.
This is where you ate outside when you had covid and didn’t want to spend one more second in your room.
This is where your professor walked around and photographed each of OUI's signs and when she thanked you for your work you knew she was proud of you.
This is where you sat in the dark and learned about Chicago public transportation.
This is where your friends opened your eyes and you became Team Pineapple Pizza.
This is where you started dancing during the Board of Trustees protest because someone got out their drumsticks and put the chant to a beat, and then all the voices grew louder.
This is where you raced your chosen siblings at 11:59 to see the planned blackout hit the building lights at midnight.
This is the best place to study on this campus and I will swear by that till the day I die.
This is where a lot of your friends study but you can never focus here.
This is where you sat with bagels from The Local on that wholesome date and had an “actual conversation about us.”
This is where you wrote the blog post you called “Nothing Makes Sense” to procrastinate the definitely past-due environmental policy assignment you were freaking out about. But the poem-post hit you like a tidal wave and there was nothing you could do to stop it.
This is where you wait before meals and where you linger after.
This is where you watched your friend pack lavender and rose petals into rolling paper from under a warm blanket on a bench swing as the fall weather set in.
This is where you stitched together the movement phrases of a dance piece, one tedious notebook in that big wide room, the math of the rhythm, your body stretching and multiplying, doing its best to approximate three bodies at once.
This is where you breathed together in the thick darkness backstage once your body was ready and your heart balanced in the thin space between terror and ecstasy.
This is where you vomited in a Wilder hallway trash can and then texted your friend, “I feel like this is something that would happen to you.”
This is where you became more confident facilitating meetings— this is where you stepped into your power.
This is where you found hidden archives in forgotten student organization storage and the whole story opened up to you, radiant and beckoning.
They haven't stopped coming.
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