Retracing steps, returning to first year

As life in college settles down, opportunities for new experiences dwindle.

By Kristin Lin

I am sitting in Clarke’s waiting for a baked apple pancake at 1:30 a.m., and it’s Tuesday. I am unsure what sequence of events led to this moment, the one right after my friends and I have ordered and the waitress is returning with three glasses of lemon water. I am unsure of the circumstances that surround my current mood: happy but without any reason to be otherwise. It’s the type of happiness that matches the tungsten glow that eternally envelops Clarke’s in a surrealist version of Nighthawks. I am unsure of these things because I feel like I am lost in time, a spontaneous first-year trapped in a second-year’s body.

They say that the best way to find something you’ve lost is to retrace your steps, so maybe I should start by doing that.

Step one: I am working with two friends in one of the I-House lounges.

Step two: Someone mentions that they’re hungry.

Step three: I note that Clarke’s delivers.

Step four: We decide to go to Clarke’s instead.

Step five: We end up borrowing a car from another friend and roll slowly up Blackstone and toward the 24-hour diner.

And now, I’m sitting in one of the plush booths with two friends. We’ve all dropped our work (some of which is due tomorrow) and we’re talking about life and school and anything, really. To me, it almost seems cheesy, like we are some flashback in an episode of How I Met Your Mother. It’s cheesy because it came together so easily, as if it were normal for us to drive instead of walk from I-House to Clarke’s, and it were a natural decision to embrace the futility of a night spent working.

But retracing my steps up till this moment might require a little more digging. Somewhere between the door of my dorm and the booth of this diner, I had found a part of the spontaneity of my first-year self.

There’s a moment after O-Week when college life just becomes life. Perhaps the novelty of living in a dorm or being with all these new and wonderful people doesn’t fade so much as a rhythm settles into your days, and laundry and morning alarms and class become prerequisites for your even being here. I remember feeling relieved when this moment happened—content that I didn’t feel the need to constantly drop my underwear mid-fold to go experience something else new. Maybe I just had a severe fear of missing out, but before this moment, everything and everyone here was a possibility. It was all so fresh. And maybe there’s a better way of framing this, but the moment I felt even slightly settled was the moment I realized that my possibilities weren’t as vast as I had thought when I first arrived here—that not every person on this campus could become my best friend, and not every conversation could impart some deep insight upon me. I felt relieved by this because it’s pretty exhausting to live as if you’re on the verge of something great every minute.

The moments in our college days that we will recall two, five, or even 10 years from now probably won’t have much to do with the reading that you need to start for next week, or that one time you ate at Bartlett. While these daily occurrences necessarily constitute the bulk of our time here, they are the stories that no one tells. Rather, the moments you remember will probably have to do with the times when you forgo those regular commitments and do something else. It’s romantic to stay up and watch the sunrise at the Point or to wander around Chicago for a day and not think about anything but your next destination via CTA. Spontaneity is memorable.

But this life is also unsustainable on a practical level. I’m not really saying that these opportunities fade as we proceed with our years here, but we certainly become less open to them—especially on those Tuesday nights when you have a reading response and a problem set due the following afternoon. And even when you are free, Netflix often sounds more appealing than trudging through the wind and snow to somewhere else.

College is not always a succession of spontaneous events, or a memory-making machine. It’s life wrought in the best possible way—a time when you can do and study things that interest you. It’s also a life that requires some sort of structure in order to proceed.

But I think settling into life here comes at the risk of becoming too attached to mundanity. It’s pretty common to stay in to watch a movie and make ramen instead of venturing out and just being open to whatever may happen and wherever it may happen.

Sitting in this booth at Clarke’s, I marvel at how organic the moment is, even if it feels so out of place in my Usual Week—I’m supposed to be asleep right now.

But instead, I feel like a first-year again. And I think I like it.

Kristin Lin is a second-year in the College.