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You Could Probably Hide a Small Elephant in Our Pile of Sweaters

June 3, 2014

It was May 27th, last Tuesday, in the late afternoon. I sat in my terminal in the Cleveland airport waiting for the inevitable announcement that my flight would be delayed. I say inevitable because I have yet to fly out of Cleveland on time, ever. My nose was stuffed so I sat breathing with my mouth half open. I couldn't hear out of either of my ears and my eyes wanted to close more than anything. I hadn't slept in a week and the oncoming cold I deserved so much had made it well past the walls of my immune system and I'd given up on Emergen-C that morning and had moved on to throat drops and Ibuprofen and hope. All I needed to do was get on that plane and take a nap. And then came the delay announcement, fulfilling my bleak expectation and quelling my hopes and dreams of a painless travel day. So there I sat, sniffling, only not quite sniffling because my cold still had that horrible inertia so that it felt like there was a brick lodged in my head. I sat there, not sniffling, and reflected on the past week and how that cold and bag of stale pretzels and delayed flight were all absolutely worth it.

Staying for commencement week was a good choice. Sure, finishing my finals on the 17th was satisfying, but I wasn't ready to leave Oberlin yet. There was something surreal about completing my exams and assignments, packing up my stuff, checking out of Burton for the last time, but then moving into a new place on campus for one more week. I was placed in Keep for commencement, which was perfect. I'm living there next year, so I got a little preview of life in my future pad.

Most non-seniors who stay for commencement week get some sort of on-campus job, which pays, and gives them housing and dining for the week. A lot of commencement jobs involve cleaning dorms, working for dining services, or campus security jobs. I work for the Resource Conservation Team during the academic year, and staying and working for commencement week is an option (and a really important one!) so that is what I did. The RCT is the behind-the-scenes of the Free Store, the Big Swap, the new recycling bins on campus, and a host of other projects. During commencement week we have what is essentially the biggest task of all: We deal with all of the stuff everyone else doesn't want to deal with at the end of the year. We are the ones who recover the heaping piles and boxes and bags of stuff that people accumulate over the year and then dump when they realize they can't fit it all into their suitcase. There is a lot of stuff.

In total, we salvaged 725 bags of stuff from the landfill! We started out during finals week collecting the swap boxes that sit for most of the year in the common rooms of all the dorms. During finals week we use the Wilder Main space for Big Swap, which is basically a giant clothes/books/stuff swap open all the time for college students and community members to come in and take or leave whatever they want. Once finals are over, though, and everyone not graduating starts to move out, all of a sudden there are swap piles that tower over the doorways and as high as the ceiling. I can't explain in words how much stuff there is. Unused winter coats with the tags still on. Chipped mugs. Dirty socks. Ratty boots. Packs of ramen. Plastic toboggans. Literally everything. We bag all of it up (okay, most of it) and take it away in a big ol' truck to the basement of Asia House, where we sort it for hours on end until we all go mad.

On the whole, I'm glad I was working for something that I have a personal investment in throughout the rest of the year. The week was a really integral period of time to help the team bond, learn each other's strengths and weaknesses, and give a final push for the end of the semester. For a job so focused on organizing stuff, I sure learned a lot about organizing people. By the end of the week we were so burnt out it was hard to get ourselves together to have a conversation, but we did it, and when I left the team for the airport on Tuesday I felt good about what we'd done and the state of the work we had left to do.

As many a blogger has said, Oberlin without homework is the greatest. I am generally pretty good about taking time to appreciate the beauty of Oberlin even during the busiest times of the year, but having a full week to just appreciate the campus and spend time with great people was fantastic. The town gets very overwhelming; the streets are pouring with parents and families and alumni, the lines at Agave sweep out the door and around the block at any and all hours of the day.

The general ethos of commencement week, I would say, is a work-hard-play-hard kind of deal. I worked with the RCT for 45 hours in a little over 8 days, and hung out with friends a whole bunch and took countless dips in the arb. It was all a wild blur, but a very pleasant one at that. And where I found the most meaning was in the time I spent with other people and the time I spent outside, with nothing but ourselves and the sunlight and the land. So then, still sitting in the airport, I started thinking about stuff again, partly, of course, because I'd just spent the week sifting through stuff up to my ears; but in all seriousness, why do people, myself included, own so much stuff when we derive the most pleasure from nearly the exact opposite?

I started thinking about how much stuff we have that we don't need. Or else, maybe we do need it, but our need oscillates at varying times in our lives. Why is our society so hung up on the idea of making stuff our permanent property? The goal is to buy item XYZ so it's yours forever. But truthfully, most stuff that we use we don't need forever. Take the simplest example: food. We need food. We buy it. We make it. We eat it, and then it's gone, and then we don't need it for a while, and then the cycle continues. Maybe this is a stretch, but why don't we treat everything like that?

When I moved into my dorm last fall, I realized I was in desperate need of some storage containers to stick under my bed. The RCT at the time hosted the fresh swap, where I grabbed a couple big plastic bins and used them throughout the year. Then, lo and behold, as I was packing and storing and moving out, I decided I didn't need them anymore and returned them to the big swap. Same with hangers. Get some from the free store at the beginning of the year, use them to your heart's content, and then return them. Some people are less inclined to do this with bedding or clothing, but one could! The idea is that, while I don't think we can ever move away from needing stuff, maybe we can move away from that instinct to own the stuff we need. We can borrow it, recycle it, repurpose it, and swap it.

Not everything needs to be communally owned or communally stored, but there is a lot of room for changing our society's system of buying and hoarding material things. Can't we all tell that where we find the most happiness isn't from material things? It's always from the things we can't touch...the times we spend laughing and crying, running and swimming, and throwing greased watermelons around in the arb with the people that make us smile.

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