The Oberlin Stories Project

On clarity and falling down

Eliot Hart-Nelson ’15

“...In this moment I became aware of how much more comfortable with being alone I had become during my time at Oberlin.”

Eliot and a friend

February of 2014 was a bitterly cold month in Oberlin. As I hail from St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the coldest metropolitan areas in the country, I often used to brag during my first two years at Oberlin that I was immune to the so-called cold Ohio winters; their relatively low temperatures appeared mild compared to my memories of waiting for the school bus in sub-zero weather, unattended snot adhering to my skin like a stone the moment it left my nose, my teeth chattering underneath a woolen scarf. But this most recent February shattered these arrogant preconceptions about my thick-skinned, Midwestern superiority. The temperature in Oberlin would drop beneath -20 degrees for several days in a row. Snow piled up in Tappan Square, glittering and winking in brief moments of sunlight as if playfully suggesting that it might never go away. Going outside became a groan-inducing, multi-layered chore, and I was not exempt from the complaining. In fact, as you may be able to tell from my writing so far, I was often the most outspoken antagonist of the cold among my group of friends.

One particular Tuesday, I woke up in the comfort of my Saunders single and, without bothering to look out the window, sighed loudly at the prospect of walking to class. After donning my protective shield of clothing, I ventured outside and began speed-walking the seemingly endless (in reality, very short) walk to King, where my comparative American studies research seminar, Expanding the Archive, met once every week. Feeling my muscles spasm in defense against the cold, listening to The National and imagining the threat of frostbite as the source of Matt Berninger’s interminable discontentment, I failed to notice a patch of ice lurking outside the west side of South. I slipped. I scrambled.

I fell down.

As I sat there in a small pile of my belongings, my initial response was one of embarrassment. Surely someone had seen my moment of vulnerable disequilibrium and would think less of me for my inability to walk from point A to point B. But as I gathered my things and scanned my surroundings, I realized there wasn’t a single person within sight. This wasn’t entirely unexpected—after all, it was 8:30 in the morning, pretty early for Oberlin time—but I couldn’t help but be startled by the vibrating silence that permeated this portion of campus that I’d become so accustomed to seeing full of hurried students, laughing friends, new acquaintances. Pulling out the remaining ear bud that the fall hadn’t dislodged, I lowered myself onto my back and reveled in a rare, beautiful moment of solitude.

Sometimes, moments of clarity arrive when you least expect them, and in this moment I became aware of how much more comfortable with being alone I had become during my time at Oberlin. In high school, my sense of security was rooted primarily in a sense of social capital and the affirming presence of others, a sense that I was only valuable insofar as I could demonstrate my value within a rigid set of “useful” or “desirable” identities. But at Oberlin, the general atmosphere of intelligent and thoughtful dialogue has endowed me with a space to grow a more internal sense of value and calm, one not entirely dependent on the opinions of others.

My mediation was short lived—I didn’t want to be late. Hoisting myself up, I zipped my backpack and resumed my walk to class, slower than before, newly collected.