Shelter Dogs, Graduation, and Temporary Love

Sometimes, I adopt a shelter dog for a day. The local animal control allows people to borrow dogs and cats for an afternoon at a time to socialise the animals, get them out of their cages, and, hopefully, encourage people to fall in love with and permanently adopt a needy animal.

My roommate and I have done this twice now. Twice we’ve fallen in love with wriggling bundles of unconditional affection. Twice we’ve seen an animal’s joy at romping on grass and in woods rather than on concrete and in cages. Twice we’ve known our hearts would break at the end of the day when we returned the dogs to the shelter.

We’ve been poor college students living in no-pets-allowed dorms with unstable lifestyles. We would be irresponsible pet owners and eventually have to give them up all over again. Still, every time we take them back to their cages, my heart cracks as I hand the leash over to a shelter employee. There’s an urge, every time, to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with an animal I can’t keep. But it’s better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, and abandon myself to the eager eyes and wagging tail.

And yet we continue to go borrow pets for the day, and I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours we take them out and show them affection, we do something worthwhile—that despite my heartbreak both the dog and I are better for our few hours of love.

IMG_20160518_141650689

I find, now, that this principle applies to more than dogs. As I packed four years of my life into boxes and suitcases, as I turned the tassel on my flat cap, hugged close friends goodbye for perhaps the last time, and watched my university disappear out the back window, I felt a familiar shattering under my ribcage.

Like most people, and definitely most TCKs, I hate goodbyes. I hate leaving people I love and places I’ve enshrined in my memories. And when I know an ending is coming, the temptation is always to withdraw a little, not to fall completely in love with people I can’t keep. I want to close myself off, to hide my soul away, protecting myself from the very beginning against the ending.

And yet it’s always better when I let myself go, forget the pain coming at the end of the afternoon, or the semester, or the four years, and abandon myself to the laughter and the tears and the friendships. Somehow, I continue to believe it’s worth it—that in the few hours or days or months we share joys and sorrows, we do something worthwhile.

I believe that we build something beautiful through late night hysteria and midafternoon naps, through heart-to-heart talks over coffee and insignificant jokes over cafeteria food. Most importantly, I believe that something does not have to be permanent to be beautiful—that some friendships are precious in their briefness, that the ephemeral can be as needed and as sacred as the eternal. And I believe that, despite my heartbreak at the end, both my friends and I are better for our few years of love.

IMG_20160521_093830712_HDR

Advertisements

Confessions of a College Senior

There’s a frantic energy that pulses through college life. It’s the exuberance of the first week back in the fall, the urgent scramble to get ahead on homework before mid-semester apathy sets in, the wild abandon of late-night giggles before finals. It’s a desperation that pounds like a heartbeat, like treading water to stay afloat long after your legs are numb from exhaustion.

Numb legs. Numb mind. Numb heart.

That’s what I get after four years of this. I’m equally beyond panic and excitement. That freshman year flutter of anxiety over low grades has given way to an apathy born of desperation and exhaustion. The thrill of anticipation over upcoming events has dulled to a weary acceptance of change, a deadened recognition of time’s inevitable progression.

“Are you excited?” people ask when they know I’m graduating next week.

“Yes,” I say.

No, I think.

Excited? Who has the energy to be excited? I can’t see graduation past the packing, the cleaning, the final exams, the empty bank account, the endless commitments.

Photo credit: Laura McIntosh

The achievement I’ve worked toward, cried over, dreamed about—suddenly, as it comes within my reach, I find I don’t care. Exhaustion robs me of excitement. And besides—somewhere in the distance, beyond the cap and gown and diploma, I see something else coming. Something bigger. Something grander.

A new goal.

I’m struggling so hard to survive the moment, straining so hard to see into the future, that I’m about to let this achievement slip away unrecognised.

“You’re almost there!” people say.

“Yes, but…” I say.

That “yes, but…” is subtle. It feels like small talk when I say it, yet by letting it out, I negate my own success. Yes, I’ve put in four years of hard work, overcome challenges I never imagined, experienced adventures and heartbreaks I never anticipated—but…

But what? But I’m not quite there yet? But I have loans? But packing is hard and I don’t have a summer job and I’m worried about this, that, or the other?

This is not an isolated moment—this is every moment. At the crest of every hill, I see the mountain beyond and allow that to diminish my sense of accomplishment, to somehow make my effort meaningless, as if the successes to come make this one not matter.

There will always be a “but.” That’s life. Nothing is isolated. No day is 100% celebration. No moment is an isolated pinnacle. Something will always be coming in the future, but tomorrow’s struggle does not negate today’s achievement.

I cannot live my life looking away from today. I can’t diminish every ending. I can’t let every new challenge ruin the success of the moment.

So yeah—I’m stressed, I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed.

I’m also excited.

Because no matter what today looks like or what challenges wait in the future, I’m near the top of this mountain I’ve been climbing for four years. Whatever might be waiting for me beyond next week, I know that what I’ve done is significant. Where I am is important.

I refuse to let tomorrow negate today.

mountain

Advice: What I Wish I’d Been Told As A Freshman

Did your family ever have one of those gag gifts that made interminable rounds? Maybe it was an ugly knickknack passed on every year to some new relative who didn’t want it and who would chuck it in a closet until next year provided an opportunity to dump it on someone else. In my family it was an old musical on VHS that bounced back and forth between my brother and my dad for years.

I’ve realised that there’s another gag gift we give without warning: advice. I don’t mean to diminish the value of wise words spoken with care, but a quick review of advice you’ve received should show you that while some advice is thoughtfully given, much of it is slapped about with a dash of cliche and all the serious forethought of a late-night ice cream binge.

College students in particular are singled out for the well-meant but ill-considered gift of unsought advice; we’re young, we’re at a potentially difficult stage of life, and we’re leaping into new experiences and challenges without much idea of what they’ll entail. The words of wisdom I’ve received over the past four or five years could fill several books, ranging from the profound to the laughable.

The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself.
—Oscar Wilde

And yet, really, good advice is one of the most valuable things we can give each other. Words well thought through and given in love can be as meaningful as slapdash adages can be useless.

So, in the spirit of one of my favourite Oscar Wilde quotes, here it is: the advice I wish I’d been given when I started university.

Don’t do things for the resume.

Trust me, assuming you have a job and some involvement on campus or in the community, your resume will be full by graduation. By signing up for anything and everything that looks good on a resume, you leave yourself no time to pursue things that really matter to you. Almost any activity can build your resume in some way, whether it’s by developing career skills, demonstrating responsible activism, showing your leadership, or simply proving you finish what you start. The difference, though, is that when you get asked about a line on your resume that you took simply to look good, you can only spout a list of typical job skills. But when you get asked about an activity you chased after because you’re passionate about after-school programs, or international relationships, or whatever it is—you could talk for days about all the ways you were challenged and changed. Your passion comes out in your voice, and you stand out. Don’t do things for the resume. Do things because you care about them.

You don’t have to know everyone.

I come from a small school in a small town. Everyone knows everyone. I came to college thinking it would be the same—that I should know everyone’s name. That somehow I was a good person if I knew everyone and a selfish person if I didn’t. Focus on others, I’ve been taught. Care about the people around you. Important attitudes, of course, but impractical when you take “the people around you” to mean every single person with whom you interact. I wish someone had told me to differentiate between common courtesy and real friendship, that someone had reminded me that while I should smile and hold doors and say “thank you,” I could forego learning thousands of people’s names and instead focus my energies on cultivating close friendships with the handful of people near me. If you’re the kind of person who wants to know a hundred people, of course, go meet them. But with a limited amount of time, chances are you won’t have know every person around. That’s fine. Be nice to strangers and save your time and emotions for the few people with whom you’ll develop lasting, meaningful relationships.

Some classes will be bad.

College is an opportunity. Whether you’re working hard and scrounging pennies to make it financially viable or riding it out on your parents’ generosity, you’ve got an opportunity that not everyone is offered, and you should make the most of that. Don’t throw away chances to learn merely because you dislike a teacher or don’t care for the subject. At the same time, recognise that some classes are there to be passed and then forgotten. Maybe it’s the freshman orientation class filled with cliche life skills, or maybe it’s that Spanish class that, it turns out, replicates the one you took in high school. Not every class is well planned, and not every professor is good at teaching. Let the bad classes heighten your appreciation for the good ones. Sit through lectures and do your homework, because sometimes in life we do things we don’t want to, because that’s part of being an adult. Appreciate any brilliant moments in the semester, check the requirement off your catalogue list, and move on. It’s okay to dislike classes as long as it doesn’t keep you from learning when there is something useful to pick up.

In the interest of being fair to all the loving relatives and friends who gave me college advice, I have to admit a lot of it was useful. A lot of it came at just the right moment to encourage me or change my perspective. But we all have lessons we learn the hard way. You’ll make mistakes no matter what, but maybe you can avoid the ones I made.

An Open Letter to Freshmen

Dear Freshmen,

Welcome to this world of late-night study sessions, early-morning panic attacks, coffee addiction, and registration confusion. This is your home now. I know the furniture is strange, its blocky shape designed to let a hundred different people stack it into a hundred different temporary arrangements. I know your new sheets smell wrong and you miss your dog and all you want is to go home, away from this place where strangers pass you in the bathroom and nobody gets your in-jokes—but give it a few weeks, a few months.

This will become home.

It will become home as you sit in the suite with the reflection essay you don’t understand and the new friends whose names you can’t remember; as you ask dumb questions and make bad jokes; as you laugh with people because they forgive your quirky humour. It’s okay if your laughter shakes and wobbles to begin with. Those midnight giggles will turn to sobs sometimes. That’s normal. Cry on your new friend’s shoulder and let yourself notice that this stranger is growing familiar. Tell stupid stories about that time you were ten and you thought you wanted to be a doctor even though you hated needles. Admire your suitemate’s new tattoo. Eat ramen at three in the morning while you wonder whether you can call your mother without looking uncool. Call your mother whether it’s cool or not. Tell her you miss her.

Then hang up.

Hang up on that home and immerse yourself in this new one. Take part in celebrations of school traditions whose beginnings are buried in grainy black and white photos of people you’ve never met. Let the hodgepodge culture of a thousand people from a thousand places wash over you until you cheer instinctively when a plate shatters in the dining commons or shout, “Pantsless o’clock!” with the rest of the floor when open-house hours end and the boys traipse out. Eat Nutella from a spoon while commiserating with your roommate over midterms. Feel the bittersweet grief of your first birthday away from home. Thank the friends who remembered to make you cards, blow up balloons, and surprise you with gifts of chocolate. You won’t notice it at the time, but they’re becoming family.

Let them.

Let them take root in your heart as you memorise their faces and voices. Notice as you begin to instinctively guard against one’s tree-nut allergy and another’s acrophobia. Realise you miss them when they leave for weekends. I know you’re counting down the days, the months, the years, eyeing the deadline, wondering if a four-year friendship is worth the pain of yet another goodbye. There are times to keep your heart safe, but this is not the time. At this place that will be home, hold your heart open. Let friendships bury themselves in your soul. Let memories twist subtle chains. Leave pieces of yourself in corners of the music building and the writing lounge. At this temporary home, let friends become permanent. Let them catch you when you fall. Let them hold you when you crumble.

And savour the moments.

Savour the happy moments and the sad ones; the happy moments feel better, but the sad ones—those are the moments that make you. The times you think you’re drowning and your roommate sits and drowns with you, the nights of crying into tea as you stare at yet another registration email, the hysterical laughter and tears as you try to pack a year’s worth of life into suitcases grown too small by the end of finals week—these are the things your new home is built of. And when it’s over, when you’ve blinked too many times and four years have passed, these are the things you’ll know for certainty. Not the content of that last class, not your plans for the future, but the content of that last conversation as you packed your room into cardboard boxes, the plans you carried out with strangers who became family in this temporary home.

It’s like nothing else you’ve ever done. It’s scary and wonderful, eternally long and infinitesimally short all at once. Plan it, experience it, tell it, live it—just don’t waste it.

Sincerely,

A University Senior

students