Orientation for freshmen has recently finished. The formal and cluttered calendar of meetings with deans and masters and frocos is through. I suppose all parties involved are relieved. For me, the program has always raised the question of what it entails to become oriented. At Yale, is it knowing how the Bass printers work, or walking around campus without darting eyes between an iPhone map and the streets ahead? Around New Haven, is it knowing where the best coffee is, or having a patch of grass to watch meteor showers from?
For some students, this transition might be the first move to a new place, discovered without the guiding force of a family in tow. And when institutional programming ends, what does the process of becoming oriented in that new place look like?
Over my four or so years here, I’ve played the game of orientation numerous times. I have spent over 70 weeks far away from both New Haven and the place I grew up calling home, and at each new place, I have wondered what I can do to become of that place — to have a sense of where I am and to feel at home. Traveling around southern Chile, a sense of orientation clicked when a man I was hitchhiking with stopped talking midsentence, looked at me and asked how I had learned Spanish. He told me it didn’t cost me to speak. Living in southeast Alaska, this feeling of home came after harvesting, processing and smoking my own salmon.
The question arises with each arrival; not every new place has a different language, nor does it always have a neighboring sea full of fish. Across these different places, though, I have felt most oriented when I have paid close attention, and then cared deeply for all that I had seen.
My most recent exercise in orientation happened in interior Alaska. I lived alone in a cabin 6 miles north of Healy, a mining town with a year-round population of just over 1,000 people. I lived far up on a hill away from the main road, and exploring the neighborhood meant wandering the game trails that wind through black spruce groves and mossy forests of aspen and birch. Getting to know the neighbors mostly meant following moose trails, seeing where the moose had slept and fed, sometimes stalking the local cow moose and calf by a boulder field I call the “shipyard,” once stumbling upon a femur and jaw bone from a clearing where one had died.
These wanders constituted the first step of my attempts to belong on that hill where I lived. I was paying attention. I was trying to see where I was.
The next step, the caring part, came easily in that land I so quickly grew to love. This step is simple: Care about the watershed, the neighbors, the red squirrel, the moose, the moss, the flowers, the lichen, the forest. After all of this noticing, this step means having empathy for, being awed and astonished by, and having a stake in the preservation of all that has been discovered. For me, this meant descending from the loft each morning, my mind still slow and sticky with sleep, and looking out the rectangular window above the table, where the aspen leaves shook in the breeze. Most days, I could not stop from repeating the refrain, the world alive with so much dance.
The same process of orientation applies to people and community: We must notice who’s around us, how they are, what they love, what they fear, what they dream. And after we have seen and listened and paid attention, we must care. I am convinced that combining these two steps — attention and care, or sight and empathy, or awareness and love — helps a great deal in this business of orientation. It helps us belong to the places and communities where we live, whether that’s downtown New Haven, Pittsburgh or a ridge just north of the Alaska Range. It takes effort. The easier path is to be lulled into complacency and distraction — to never learn the names, fears, dreams, favorite foods and strange obsessions of our roommates, suitemates, housemates and seminar-mates, to not notice migrating birds, falling leaves or passing faces on the sidewalk.
We too often choose awareness of our inboxes over awareness of our surroundings. But in the smallest of moments — transitions between classes, lines in coffee shops — we can make the biggest differences in our own sense of belonging to this place. Look up. Say hello. Ask questions. Be good to each other. Because the harder you look and the harder you love, the sooner you will find some new sense of orientation, and maybe even some new sense of home.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College, currently in Alaska. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .