As a graduating senior, I feel a bit elderly, and I think I am starting to act it: I've been doing a lot of gazing contemplatively into the Ohio sky, sitting down for no reason, and puttering around the house. I haven't yet, however, given into the urge of giving my younger friends unsolicited advice. Until now. Dear youngsters, I've learned a lot during these four years. A lot of it is personal and academic, and you will have to learn those things yourselves. But I've learned a few great things about Oberlin, too, and I would like to share some of them with you.
Only some — there are a few things, like Wilder's handful of secrets, that you'll have more fun finding out on your own.
Like a good science major, I'll start with the facts, and move on to opinions later. 1
Here's my favorite. Strange fruits (and fruits more familiar) are scattered around Oberlin's campus. The tastiest fruits available for out-of-hand eating are probably ones you've never heard of before: kousa fruits and Cornelian cherries. Of those, the better are kousa fruit. They look and sound like something out of Dr. Seuss:
But they are real. And they're pretty tasty, especially if you are on your five-minute break from your Contact Improv class and you forgot to eat breakfast, or if you are showing off your suburban foraging skills. Peel the skin, though. The skin is edible, but it's the pulp that's good.
There is one bush on the west side of Rice, easily accessible from the sidewalk, and another you will have to discover for yourself, because I forget where it is.
Cornelian cherries are also very tasty. They are less showy and a little more poisonous-looking, but they are not the slightest bit poisonous, and are very popular in their native Iran. They are not ripe until they fall to the ground and get that particular ripe look to them. Taste several, and you'll know. I have only found one tree on Oberlin's campus, between Peters and Cox.
Three kinds of fruit at the AJLC ripen during the school year, but the fruit trees there are loved and cared for and eating from them is harvesting, not foraging. Students are usually not discouraged from eating fruit if it is ripe. If you harvest there, be careful to take only ripe fruit, and please heed all signs.
In contrast, the apple trees on the science center lawn are not cared for, so take all the apples you like - the fewer that fall and rot on the ground, the fewer pests there will be next year.
Many people see the campus fruit trees, but there are places that Oberlin owns that almost nobody goes. My personal favorite is the North Forest, 47 acres of mixed hardwood forest lying just north of North Fields. I spent a whole semester with good friends trekking through it and analyzing its carbon storage potential, so of course I have a soft spot. But there are others that I've never visited that may be more beautiful still. The property maps are public. Take a look.
Here is another fact: Never trust PRESTO about class information. You'd think I would have figured this out earlier than I did, but since I didn't, here it is for you:
An open class spot in PRESTO is not a real spot. Even if there are a dozen spots on PRESTO, those spots are not real spots.
PRESTO will sometimes tell you if a class requires consent, but don't count on it doing so until you actually try to add it during add/drop.
If you want to get into a class after your first registration period, just email the professor. Just do it. The worst that can happen is that they will say "There's no waitlist; just register during add-drop." They will not add "you foolish person." That is what you will be calling yourself during add-drop if you try to register for a 48-person class with 14 open spots on PRESTO and find that there is actually a waitlist 30 people long.
If you don't know about PRESTO and add-drop yet, do not worry, friends. You will know more than you ever wanted to know.
On the bright side, PRESTO is completely reliable for employee information, as long as you only want to access your employee information between 6 AM and 11:40 PM.
Downtown Oberlin has everything you need. This fact got too long, so it became a separate post; watch for it later!
Okay, that's the facts. Here's the unsolicited opinions part of this unsolicited advice.
The exhortation to just send the email applies not only to emails about classes, but pretty much to every email ever, especially replies. In my thirteen years of having an email account, I'm not sure I have ever replied to someone's message and later thought "Oh no, I really should have waited three weeks to send that." It might have happened once or twice, but I've forgotten now. However, there are several emails from years ago that I still regret not answering. Three hours so quickly becomes three weeks and then three years. How late is too late? Ask someone else; I don't know. I do know that it's much nicer not to wonder.
Take a private reading. Do it. Even if you are scared of most of your favorite professors. Even if you are not super-into any of your academic classes. Find someone with instructor status who believes in you, and run with it.
It doesn't really matter what it is, as long as you can find someone to sponsor you. If you've taken Betsy Bruce's excellent winter term, she might be willing to sponsor any fiber-arts-related projects. Or a professor might be willing to set up something similar to what Sean and I set up to do my cider press: independent work and occasional check-ins. As long as there's firm accountability (in my case, a finished cider press) it shouldn't take too much of the instructor's time, but of course, instructors' comfort levels with independent projects vary widely. Nevertheless, it's worth a shot.
Before you even look for a private-reading-worthy project, find what soothes you. Maybe you already know. I don't mean what you do to chill out and not have to be present, although that's important too. I mean what you do to be fully present and fully restful. I'm having trouble explaining this, so maybe examples would help. Here's one that comes to mind: when I have just moved both chicken arks to fresh grass, and everyone has clean water, and the hens are foraging in the hazels, and I whistle to them to come home for their treats, and they all run to me, trusting me to feed them and put them up safe for the night.
Here's another: when it starts to rain, and I run through everything - are the chickens covered? are the rabbits warm? are the windows closed? are my books inside? - and everything is OK, and I can enjoy the smell of the rain, and the knowledge that my seedlings and my pastures will grow.
Where are you soothed? At the beginning of a promising book? After a really good class discussion? Or maybe after cooking a meal? You'll seek these things out naturally. Be aware of them, especially the ones you can make happen by yourself. Come back to them when you don't want to do anything or be present anywhere. I can't promise it will help, but it helps me.
Here's another one. No matter what it is, remember: your friends are more important. I know it's not true for everyone, but it's true for me. I hope the friendships I made at Oberlin will matter to me for much longer than my GPA. How long does a GPA even matter? For the first two jobs? Maybe a whole career in some fields. Check back with me in fifty years, but older Obies' experience backs me up: Oberlin friendships can last longer than any career. So schoolwork is not as important as friendships. Not even close.
Of course, self-care is important, too, and we each have to find our own balance between self- and friend-care, which brings us to:
Life in Oberlin is an impossible balancing act. Impossible. Some people perform it with grace. I do not know how. If you do, drop me a line. If you don't, it's okay: remember that few people do. There are not enough hours and too many days. Or too many hours and not enough days. I made it up until finals of my second year before I made my first catastrophic mistake, and until my last commencement, my own commencement, before I made my second one. Here I am, a proud Oberlin graduate, far gone from Ohio, but my worst mistakes squeezed into the car with me and I think they are here to stay.
During my last week in Oberlin, while I was taping up boxes and coming completely unglued2, my dad said: "Life is made of regrets. Just make sure they are the right ones." This doesn't make any sense to me at all, but here is one interpretation. Let your mistakes be made, not because of too little love, but because of too much.3
And remember that although mistakes may come with you, heavy and hard to pack, they won't always be so sharp.
I have no advice to give regarding the brevity of four years. If your experience is like mine, you will be aware at the proper time of how blessed you have been. Until then there's no need to get all sentimental.
I do think it helpful to remember that it will be over soon. It was helpful for me while slogging through homework, and while doing more important things, like dancing. Every first Friday, preparing for contra, I would groan and complain about having to get all ready and then go exercise for three hours when all I really wanted to do was hole up and relax and read web comics. I would remember that Oberlin contra dances — full of friends, and disregarded gender roles, and musicians that I love playing music I want to move to — are not coming with me. I would go. And I would positively bounce with happiness.
Now that it is over for me, it feels like the proper time for sentimentality. Because I am an old man now, with aches and pains all over my body after a long week working with horses, I think I am entitled to it. Oberlin became my home while I was there. As a student, I was uniquely privileged, and had access to anything and everything I needed. I was clothed by the free store, fed by the co-ops, and given full access to three libraries and a well-stocked woodshop and even a garden and orchard. More importantly, Oberlin was full of love. I was loved so much that I could rely on it to support me any time I could not support myself, no matter the problem, or the foolishness that had caused it. (Of course, that was true before I ever heard of Oberlin, because my family is wonderful, but there is something different and important about support from people who are just as young and lost and hurt as you are and who are not obligated to love you and do anyway.) And I loved just as fully and as fiercely. Like my mistakes, all that love came with me when I left; unlike my mistakes, it will grow as it matures.
There's this thing the sky likes to do after a long day of rain. A gap opens to the west, and the sun shines through, setting Peters alight with gold. That hour came to represent Oberlin to me: against a backdrop of confusion and hard work and occasional heartbreak, sudden and all-consuming joy.
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Like any good scientist, I am also aware that opinion and fact are difficult to disentangle — in some cases, impossible — and have not troubled to be overscrupulous in dividing them here.
Okay, not completely. This is due entirely to the kindness of my friends and relations. Thank you, Mom and Dad, Wilson and Aaron, Nana and Grandaddy, Steph, Steve, Emma, Lukas, Lexi, and Sam. Thank you, Whitman, Noah, Sam, Alex, and Ray; Eleanor, for every one of many hours; and Ari, for your honesty, courage and compromise.
Unfortunately, my own mistakes are due less to too much love than too little common sense. But no amount of talking about common sense will help you one way or the other.
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November 29, 2021