The Oberlin Stories Project

On living in tiny communities

Celina Siegel ’18

“They are exhausting and overwhelming and stressful in a way that only intense familiarity can be. They are also wonderfully intimate and deeply comforting and rewarding.”

A house by the sea at dusk

It took me a while to realize that my worlds were getting smaller.

I started in Newton, a Boston suburb of 85,000 people; I moved to Oberlin, which is 8,000 people in the middle of nowhere; I got a summer job on Star Island, 38 acres and 100 staff members off the coast of New Hampshire. Oh, and I’ve spent my entire Oberlin career in Keep Co-op, living with 50 people and eating with an additional 30.

I don’t actually know why I’m so drawn to tiny communities. They are exhausting and overwhelming and stressful in a way that only intense familiarity can be. They are also wonderfully intimate and deeply comforting and rewarding. My struggle, over the past two years, has been to figure out how to balance one with the other. Which I kind of have.

These aren’t guidelines, really — more like things to be aware of. Welcome to Oberlin. Be prepared.

To begin with: I never knew how much I would miss anonymity. It’s one thing to occasionally wish you were invisible, so that you wouldn’t have to deal with human interaction for a few hours; it’s another to recognize everyone everywhere you go, and be constantly recognized in return. On Star, I worked with the same 100 people every day, and then lived and hung out with them in my down time. What saved me were my weekly days off, when I would go ashore to Portsmouth and wander the town alone. On these days, I didn’t owe anything to anyone -- not a smile or an acknowledgement or the identity I had built for myself on the island.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t develop important and intimate relationships on Star - or at Oberlin. Sharing such a tiny world with someone allows you to know them in a way that isn’t possible if you return to different homes at the end of each day. I know how my friends are when they wake up in the morning, how they take their coffee, what they do with their down time. I know when they’ll be happiest and when they’ll take things the hardest. But I also know that if I’m going to experience people intensely, I need to balance that intensity with time away from them. I know that taking time by myself makes me appreciate my friends all the more.

Another thing I did not expect: if one person’s in a funk, everyone’s in a funk. I guess this kind of makes sense in a we-all-live-together-so-our-periods-sync-up sort of way, but it’s more than that -- it’s every single mood. This gets especially noticeable around February in Oberlin - I’m convinced everyone has Seasonal Affective Disorder.

It’s around this time that we drink a lot of tea in each other’s rooms, that we give ourselves days off and watch TV in each other’s beds. We blow off coop meals and decompress over rice bowls at Kim’s. Maybe it’s a finals period, or maybe we’ve just gone too long without a vacation. We take care of each other, hope for warmer weather, and muddle through. But there are only 3,000 of us, and we have no one to neutralize our gloominess; in Keep especially, this becomes exhausting. We feel things collectively, and in interacting with one another, we amplify them.

Which brings me to my third point: get out of your tiny community. Even if you can’t do it physically, make sure it’s happening mentally. One reason Star Island was so intense was because it was a literal island, with terrible internet. The task of actually explaining my world to people outside of it felt so daunting that I shrank away from it. I lost touch with a lot of people in my life - and in doing so, started feeling like I was losing touch with myself.

In Oberlin, getting out means taking advantage of vacations - be it to return home or to crash on a friend’s couch. It means limiting yourself to just one Winter Term on campus, easy as it is to hole up in your dorm room every January watching The Office -- ahem, I mean, working on an independent songwriting project. It means catching up with your high school friends, or going thrifting at the Volunteers in North Olmstead instead of the Goodwill down South Main. It means remembering the world outside of Oberlin.

Do not be afraid. Here is a fun analogy involving cars: this year, two permits in and four years late, I’m learning to drive. The hardest part of this is maintaining my speed on curvy roads—I always get nervous and slow down, and my mom always reminds me to keep my speed up, to feel the curves of the road and to trust them. The loss of anonymity, the collective emotions, the fishbowl feelings—these are the curves, and they are manageable. Remember to take time by yourself. Remember to support each other. Remember to return to the outside world. Recognize the curves, and learn to navigate them. I am learning to navigate them. You will learn to navigate them, too.

Don’t panic. Welcome to your tiny community.