Oberlin Blogs

Oberlin Pillow Book

November 30, 2023

Thorin Finch '26

A view across Tappan Square in autumn.
A view of Tappan Square in autumn. Photo credit: Thorin Finch

In autumn, it is the afternoons that are most beautiful. Is there any sound more joyous and pure than the breeze swelling among dry golden leaves? Sometimes, the eddies of wind will carry the dry leaves skyward, where they dance like tiny kites. 

Even when there are no trees to be seen, the wind throws hair and scarves into chaos. How amusing it is when, upon turning a corner, some unsuspecting classmate is assailed with a sudden gust! One can hardly be upset when others laugh, as the playful wind takes its turn to vex you as well. 


Opportunities for Small Joy

On a brisk autumn afternoon, the North Quad bench swing sways in the breeze. Such a lonely sight, and yet such an opportunity! Only someone truly void of humor or love would not sit for a while and enjoy the day.

Stepping from the shade of a classroom into the brightness of the day, one encounters a boon companion or a close friend destined for a similar location. One can be certain to arrive nowhere in a timely manner after such an encounter, and yet the tardiness hardly matters when such stimulating conversation can be had!

On one such occasion, a good friend and I fell to talking and let our feet wander, and before long we were outside Langston Hall. We began trading farewells, only to discover that neither they nor I lodged in Langston. Our mutual destination had been towards delightful discourse, and all else had faded like watercolors on a dry canvas. 


Things to Swiftly Pass By

The steps that lead to Stevenson Hall; such an onerous climb at first light. Descending stairs may be done with grace, but only swiftness matters when ascending. 

The smell of smoke in North Quad, when one is wandering late at night. In an instant it can turn the tranquil peace of evening foul, but it is better not to challenge it and merely to move on with grace and poise. To befoul the peace of others is to invite foul luck to oneself; in time, the smokers will have their due.

A gathering of wasps on the path ahead is such foul luck, and yet what is there to do but walk on? One can only pray not to attract their ire.



The delicate chime of a bicycle bell. 

A lone guitar, harmonizing the wind on a bright afternoon.

Brass players, serenading a sunny morning at the koi pond. 

An electronic fanfare, harbinger of a meal in Stevenson Hall. 

Crickets, at night.


What is the Pillow Book?

The original Pillow Book, or Makura no Soshi in the original Japanese, was a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, and musings recorded by the writer Sei Shonagon as reflections of her daily life in the court of Heian-era Japan. She was born around a thousand years ago, but her writings survive as a living, breathing, and occasionally strongly opinionated account of life in ancient Japan. 

I first encountered the Pillow Book this fall, where we read excerpts from it as part of my Ancient Japanese History course. To try and wrap our heads around the cultural and artistic values of the time, Professor O’Dwyer gave us the assignment to write a short prose narrative in the style of Sei Shonagon. Not only was the exercise fascinating to me as a writer, it got me thinking about my time at Oberlin in a very different way. 

Often, between classes and homework and rehearsals and all the myriad other things I do every day, the little moments of wonder that are scattered throughout my days get lost, trampled by the forward march of time. My goal here is not to be a chronicler so much as an artist, to paint with words the Oberlin experience as I have known it. 

Maybe, in a thousand years, some archaeologist will even find these helpful in understanding what it was like to be a student at a small, liberal arts college in the year 2023.

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