This time last year I was in the Indian Himalayas, spending my days basking in solitude, seeking the serene, the isolated. Before, I had always preferred interaction to isolation. I thrived off of the social, was known as an extrovert. But in the mountains, I found myself turning to meditation, half to reflect and half to close myself off from others. Sometimes it was formal—sitting silently and focusing on breath. Other times it was on walks in the mountains, or while reading. I was ready for my nine months in India to be over and awaited the time at home. It was not isolation in and of itself that I sought, but retreat from experiences symbolic of a more profound isolation. I was ready to be home. I wanted life to resume its familiar pace. I wanted to eat American food and be with my American friends and American family.
Now I’m back in the U.S. Recently I’ve been having anxiety dreams more and calling my family less. I get so wrapped up in life here—the classes, meetings, nights out—that I forget to process. I forget to go to meditation classes on Tuesday afternoons, where an American Buddhist monk tells us that meditation is just to be aware. And I think I have been less aware. I forget to breathe. I forget to have long lunches with thoughtful friends who push me to contemplate my day. (More accurately, I choose not to have long lunches in order to finish an essay or go to a club meeting instead.)When I’m asked who I am and what I do, I remember a series of affiliations, not who is at my core—a concept that is perhaps cliché, definitely abstract, but certainly real.
Now I yearn for isolation again. Not because I dislike Princeton, but because I love it. The intensity here is enlivening. But you can’t really know a place while you’re in it, and you can’t really know what is constant in yourself until you test yourself somewhere new. As Princeton continues to change me, I’ll continue to (on the school’s dollar—a uniquely Princeton phenomenon). I’ll live in the cycle of intensity and isolation, intensity and isolation, intensity and intense isolation.
In September, my family drove down to Princeton in our minivan, which was packed to the brim with a pile of my possessions that was almost as enormous as my sense of idealism. We pulled up to my Wilson building; it wasn’t beautifully ivy-covered, I noted, but it would do. As I moved into my non-air conditioned dorm room, I didn’t even mind the sticky heat so much. I figured it was a rite of passage to have a shitty room freshman year. I knew that soon enough, Princeton would be my home, and amazing things would start happening. I was ready for my life to change.
As surely everyone does, I had this distinct image of “college” in my mind before I came here. Most of this image originated from my parents’ relations of their late seventies college escapades, as well as from numerous bad college movies. My dad loves Animal House, so my family has watched it together an absurd number of times. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that my college experience would be anything like that of those 1960s frat boys, but films like this certainly shaped my perception of what awaited me here on campus.
My idea of Princeton was distinctly preppy: all pink shorts and tan Sperrys (which hasn’t been totally inaccurate). At the school I imagined, it was perpetually sunny; students sat out on a grassy quad that was bathed in a sort of golden light. It was a place of diversity and self-discovery, of art and self-expression, with just a hint of some beer-swilling, toga-wearing frattiness. Why did I assume that this image would be close to the truth? My real high school years didn’t resemble any of those high school comedies, so why should I expect anything different from my college experience? A mix of cheesy 80s dance pop and mopey Smiths songs have made some appearance in the soundtrack to my freshman year, but other than that, my life bears little relation to any of these films.
Replaying my memories of this past year, none of it seems all that significant in the grand scheme of my life. There was no defining moment of my year, no dramatic transformation or moment of truth—only certain instances that stick in my mind despite their insignificance. I remember one of my first nights out during frosh week: I met someone who soon became a friend, but at the time I was completely convinced that he hated me. I remember going to a pregame on Princetoween, and thinking it was absolutely hilarious how there was a jug of milk out among the mixers. I remember the way in which my new friend Rebecca and I would finally part ways after studying together, shouting “Good night, love you” to each other across the Wilson Courtyard. I remember sitting on her bed one fall night, eating a rapidly melting pint of Ben and Jerry’s. I remember all the times I made awkward eye contact across the dance floor with boys I barely knew, but thought were cute. I remember sinking into the comfy Terrace couches on many occasions, and falling asleep on them once.
When I came here, I was convinced like every other idealistic freshman that Big Things would soon be happening to me. That hasn’t quite been the case. There’s nothing inherently extraordinary about any of these moments, and I have few stories that would be all that entertaining to anyone other than the people involved. But that’s what is special about them; these memories are important to me because of who I share them with. I’ve been so lucky to make friends here who I care about, and who care about me. Maybe my life has changed, then, because I can’t picture living without them. I’ve been forced to learn how to be more independent in my time here, and spend time alone; I’ve dealt with a lot of boredom. What I value in my friends is that they help turn “nothing’s happening” into something worth remembering. It’s these collections of little moments together that become my memories, and become the big things.
Not every vivid memory from this year is worth reliving, though: I don’t really want to remember all the times I questioned my choices of classes, of majors, of friends, of coming to Princeton. I don’t really want to remember the time when I practically had an emotional breakdown on my way to the Street, or when I nearly cried when I got my first disappointing grade on a paper. But the sad and the boring parts are part of my experience anyway, and I’ll probably still remember them no matter how hard I try to erase certain things from my memory. My freshman year has been defined by going against expectations—both my expectations of what life would be like here at Princeton, and my expectations of who I would become. I’m now even further from figuring out what I want to do with my life than I was when I got here, but I think this has actually brought me closer to figuring out myself. I’ve learned to handle disappointments, and just keep moving past them. At the same time, I’ve learned to not just sit around and wait. If I want Big Things to happen, I need to make them happen.
College is nothing like the movies; I can’t just skip over the slow parts and get back to the action. This isn’t Hollywood, nor does it need to be. But as Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast,” though it sometimes seems that the days creep by incredibly slowly. The other day I was going through my photo album of this year, when I came across a picture of Rebecca and me at the Pre-rade, best friends fresh out of OA. The moment seemed like it had happened so long ago. Examining my September self, I feel like I already look different. I feel different; I’m not quite sure how that happened. Maybe there really are Big Things happening in my life. Maybe I’m just too close up, and I won’t see them until there’s a little more distance between myself and the past. Just because life isn’t always glamorous or exciting, doesn’t mean it isn’t special. I can never quite know which moments are going to become important until after they’ve gone by. But when I come back to campus in the fall, I know to watch out for those moments, and not overlook their subtle shine because I’m searching for something a little more sparkly.
Freshman year was a thing that happened to me this year, and, in fact, it did indeed happen. I believe that, during this time, quite a collection of things transpired—I made friends who are real people (NOT local high-school- ers I hired to be my friends), I took interesting classes and attended those classes, and survived a year in New Jersey (ha!).
My motive in this pursuit is founded upon the fact that, while many people believe that freshman year did not happen, this argument can be further revised to consider the implications of freshman year being a thing that happens.
When I look back on my life as an old man who has seen the world change, I will think, “Hey, remember that time freshman year happened?” and I will smile. Or maybe, I’ll electronically stumble across a picture of a few friends and me as I dedicate my iPhone 4 to a history museum, and I’ll post it on Instagram with the caption “tbt to freshman year!” and all my friends will comment, “Wow, Carson, freshman year definitely happened!”
But now that I think about it, what is freshman year? If anything, is it not a social construct, produced by the University, Administrators, and Corporations to pigeonhole us students into an easily defined quadrad of boxes? It’s an arbitrary distinction in time, governed by the cycles of the earth—we leave campus when it gets hot, and come back as Sophomores. In that sense, I cannot further pursue the idea of freshman year, because there is no such thing.
Am I a freshman? Was anyone ever a freshman? Are we human, or are we dancers?
– Carson Welch