Let me tell you a memory of mine.
One day, before Christmas break, before finals, basically so way long ago I can't believe it was in my lifetime, I saw my roommate. It made me super happy. The end.
I love that memory. I wish I had a thousand more like it. You'd think I'd get plenty of time with Leah, seeing as we're, you know, roommates and all, but our hanging out together is a lamentably infrequent occurrence - she spends more time in the Conservatory and the geology labs than anywhere else, and I split my time between Tank (where my partner lives), Hales (where acrobatics live), and the practice rooms. When Leah and I passed each other at the entrance to Stevie that one day so long ago, it was therefore necessary for us to stop in our tracks, immediately halt all conversation with our high-pitched noises of joy, and express our affection for each other via bear hugs. I had places to be and I'm sure she was hungry, so our exchange was brief; it consisted mostly of affirming that we would meet tomorrow night at a friend's house for band practice. Despite the encounter's brevity, I left Stevie placated. And then I began wondering why our mutual promise made me feel so much less bothered about missing out on the company of someone I am so fond of. Is the time that we spend playing music together an adequate alternative to conversation, to making tea for each other when we're sick, to taking walks?
Complicated question. I'll come back to it.
My bonds with many of the people I saw often last year have weakened this year, and it irks me that I am missing out on their company (the people in Oberlin are, after all, easily the best thing Oberlin has to offer). I'm in a bit of a bind, though, because my socializing is limited by a lack of free time, a list of priorities that always puts work over people, and, most importantly, by restrictive preferences: I like to socialize with one person at a time, or with small handfuls of people, and I am especially prone to discomfort if the group includes too many strangers. Also, how much courage I can muster to risk social discomfort usually fluctuates from day to day, but I have not been brave for a long time now.
Something else about my social habits that I've been paying attention to ever since my mom pointed it out in high school is that I function much better in social situations if they have a purpose other than simply 'hanging out.' Contra dancing, for example, works great for me because I barely have to talk at all, but I'm still meeting and connecting with people in a way that feels authentic and in a setting that feels very forgiving of honest blunders. And, of course, there's the small matter of always having killer live music... Speaking of music, though - playing tunes in sessions is another social activity I like, and while it's maybe not as immediate a connection as using your words to talk to someone, listening and responding to another person through the medium of music and thereby engaging in joint creativity can be easier (and no less rewarding). What those two kinds of purpose-driven interactions have in common that helps me, I think, is that you have to focus so intensely to make the optimal snap decisions that it gets you out of your own head and thus out of your worries and insecurities about your awkward self.
Acrobatics does that for me, too, with the added bonus that something incredible happens when you engage in physical activity that requires you to put your safety in the hands of another person: you form a bond built on complete trust, and you do it right away. I may not know many details about the lives of the people I spot in tumbling or base in partner acrobatics - I may, in fact, know no details whatsoever - but I have had so much practice putting the entire sum total of my muscle mass into the task of keeping them safe that it's habit by now. And if you show me someone who habitually asks me to protect them while they try something new, someone I habitually put great effort into protecting, I will show you a friend. Acrobatic pursuits are my ideal socializing.
So, back to my roommate and the question of whether or not I should allow myself to be placated by 'I never see you but hey at least we'll play music soon.' I think the answer is yes. I also think the answer is no. Yes, music can be a fulfilling way for me to connect with people, but no, jamming once a week does not replace intentionally making space for a friend in your life.
Problem is, I'm really bad at setting aside the time that any one of my friendships deserves, let alone enough time to nurture all of them. I had a long-distance friend tell me recently that my lack of communication last term had hurt their feelings, which I'm ashamed of, but if on-location socializing is hard for me to prioritize, long-distance socializing is nigh impossible. (It doesn't help that I hate phones.) I have, thus far in my life, managed to keep up with letter-driven friendships only because I know that writing clears my head and that getting a letter in the mail will be super awesome for whoever's on the receiving end, so I sometimes force myself to sit down and decompress by writing a letter. But that is the only way I can make long-distance friendships work.
Miraculously, I somehow do still talk to my parents on the reg. (We write the occasional letter or postcard, but mostly it's emails and skype.) I think we've kept it up through the sheer force of my mother's will, to be honest - she will start sending me increasingly distressed emails if she hasn't heard from me in a few days and won't stop until I respond properly - for which I am grateful, really. I miss my parents. My brother and I talk less, but he emails back and forth with me whenever he isn't particularly busy, and we send each other text message vignettes from our lives (recently, he sent me a phone picture of a spatula lying rather forlornly on the passenger seat of his car. He wanted to share with me that he had just scraped ice off his car for the first time). I miss him, too. He is hands down my oldest and best friend.
I wonder how much of this weirdness around my social modus operandi is specific to me, how much is part of being in an incredibly impermanent point in the process of growing up, and how much comes from being in a place like Oberlin where the constant onslaught of fascinating events and incredible opportunities makes it really difficult to prioritize well.
I also wonder, based on a series of comments my mom posted to my facebook page, whether I'm just thinking about everything the wrong way. She said something that ended in "what is more important than friends?" and probably meant it rhetorically. I replied, tongue in cheek, "Well. There's music. And there's being a good human being. There's also learning. I could go on." By which I meant: given the choice between never having another friend and never having music in my life again, I would jettison friends in a heartbeat. Or, given the choice between having friends and not being repulsed by how reprehensible a human I am, I would again opt out of the friendship thing. Or if I had to kill my intellectual life to keep my social one, I wouldn't. And so forth. My mom then wrote, "music with people, being good around people, learning from with [and] for people..." which is what's making me wonder: should I try to stop feeling like friendships are a choice/tradeoff? Am I going about this the wrong way? Can I, in fact, do everything? Can I get enough sleep, be invested in my classes, eat well, do the extracurriculars I can't do without, AND have a social life? I'm not convinced that it's possible.
I am convinced, however, that Oberlin is not my Oberlin without the denizens I so love, and the prospect of letting them slip further away from me is alarming.
Friends: I am glad of you. Feel free to give me a swift kick in the rear now and again if I forget that I do actually love being around you.
Peers, prospies, and other people connected to this place: there is no resource in Oberlin more precious than its people. Conduct yourself accordingly. (Also, if you have figured out a way to have your social cake and eat it too, for goodness' sake post it in the comments so that I can spend my life desperately trying to duplicate yours.)
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February 16, 2021