How I learned to stop worrying and love Occidental

39

As I write my final article, I rub my hand against the patchy beard that I started growing for Movember—my first opportunity to grow a patchy beard and get away with it. I live off campus next to the house where I took my first college shot: Sailor Jerry spiced rum, chased with a sip of pulp-free Tropicana orange juice. I look around at a silk painting of an elephant on my desk acquired during a research trip to Delhi; a stack of books collected at the Last Bookstore; a framed photograph of me and my late grandfather given to me by my mother to remember him before his dementia set in.

I like keeping trinkets. They remind me that the little details comprise my experience rather than fade into the background, preserved as tiny reminders of personal stories. Trinkets are prizes from treasured memories, but while I inch closer to graduation, I increasingly want to hold onto Occidental’s endearing little flashes of character: the brush of wind upon entering the library, the sight of finches bouncing around Branca Patio, the echo of my shoes against the floor of the AGC rotunda. Friday night parties and pristine papers did not define my four years in Eagle Rock; instead, loving the little parts about our school created my perfectly imperfect Occidental experience.

I almost turned a blind eye to this school after my first year. I found it difficult to put into words why I wanted to transfer. The conversations between my friends and family—and my family about my friends—felt cumbersome, bereft of the brightness with which my hometown friends brought their college experience to life. Over the summer, I kept comparing my year to that of my high school friends; losing myself in their enthusiastic recollections when speaking about their schools. When I joined in, I didn’t know what parts of my Occidental experience to share because throughout the year, I always felt like I wanted to be somewhere else. Engulfed by my own distorted perception of Occidental, I unjustifiably treated the smiling faces in the omelette bar on Saturdays or the amateur acoustic guitar-playing in Newcomb as a masquerade.

Instead of looking inward, I set my sights beyond the campus walls. Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago and Columbia University topped the list of transfer spots after the first semester of my sophomore year. I tucked my O-Team shirt and my 2012 “I voted” pin into a box of retired trinkets in my closet, preparing to keep them as relic of my brief stay. The search was quiet, obviously, and I kept my worries even quieter. Even my mom’s encouraging Easter cards and my childhood copy of the book “Animalia”—both sitting atop my scattered desk in Wylie—did not convince me to open up my boyish sense of adaptation to Occidental’s unique campus community.

Every “How are you?” was another chance to cheat myself out of defining my unhappiness. Before I considered transferring, I always had problems with that phrase. It felt vapid––a powerful three-word question that’s usually met with an superficial answer, precluding honest dialogue between the listener and speaker. We speak to each other through this question without doing justice to the answer. I didn’t want my honesty to burden anyone.

Slowly, I accepted the beauty this school had to offer. I noticed the more I kept my anxieties to myself, the less vulnerable I could be; the less vulnerable I was, the more I deflected happiness; the more I deflected happiness, the harder it was to find it again. By failing to acknowledge and appreciate Occidental for its weirdness and its character, I could not love my school for the missing Marketplace silverware, the smell of rotten eggs in the Berkus entryway, the annual Science Olympiad and the broken-down printers.

A few weeks into my second semester, I forgot all about transferring. Forgetting about some distant, alternate life opened me up to experience Occidental from a fresh vantage point, to laugh at its oddities and brave its tragedies. The shoddy foam art at the Green Bean turned into an endearing aspect of the social hub; the Swan Hall construction became the potential for a beautiful renewal; the sunsets became an escape from the Los Angeles pollution, straight from a Monet painting.

By paying attention to these details, I embraced an image of Occidental that was more vivid than the way the sun hits the Quad with just the right Tiger orange at 5 p.m. And these details have left a mark on my life that I could be proud of because I know, in the end, that I made a home here—and it’s okay that it wasn’t perfect. The walk from the Cooler to Newcomb isn’t optimally level, Toga is not completely predictable and our students are not fully informed. My answers to “How are you?” are still subject to change, but that’s how it should be. Sometimes it takes a while to understand that feelings cannot always be perfectly pocketed and put on top of a desk. It is a waste to concede to dissatisfaction without first acknowledging the everyday magic that can deliver us grace.

I have never replaced my student ID card. Not once. When I forgot it at home after heading back to school from winter break, I requested that my father mail it back to me, even though I could receive a free replacement. Just because something can end does not mean it should. I couldn’t replace an Occidental experience for the world.

Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at dickmeyer@oxy.edu or on Twitter @HDickmeyer.