On Fridays, I have lunch with two of my best friends. I can’t remember exactly what we talk about: weekend plans, mostly; homework, sometimes. We have a series of inside jokes that involve speaking in British accents. Occasionally, there is news: a fling, a breakup, a funny story. We chew over the details. If the story’s worth telling again, we repeat it the next week. “Do you remember that time when…?” Yes, usually. We laugh just as hard the second time.
I also have regular dinners with my former suitemates in Silliman. The references are different, but the patterns are the same. I have been ranking everyone in our Groupme, goes one running joke, but I refuse to tell anyone where they fall.
My text history is full of messages I expected to receive and messages my friends expected me to send. (“You’ve probably read this article, but…” “Have you seen this video?” Of course I have, I sent it to you yesterday.)
This is what Virginia Woolf might call “the cotton wool of daily life”: a collection of small sympathies, condolences and commiserations, a parasympathetic nervous system of friendships at rest.
We tend to spend a lot of time talking about the big moments in college because those moments make sense. There are the victories: finding love, solidifying a friendship, finishing a project; the crises: losing love, messing up a friendship, falling into a rut; and then there’s simply grace: the moments you remember for no reason at all. It’s impossible not to describe grace in spiritual terms: It appears in times of inner peace, bringing that upward trending, utter sense of belonging. In these big moments, Woolf argues, something tears through the cotton wool of our experience, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”
I’ve found that most people spend time trying to make sense of these experiences. Everyone tries to communicate. Over lunch, at drinks or dinner, we polish events into stories, stories into anecdotes, and anecdotes, finally, into the sorts of things you can hold in a sentence: That time when I went to a naked party, when you lost your screw date, that article we wrote. That Valentine’s Day.
The more I think about it, the more the big and small moments come together. I can’t think of a story (a night spent playing drinking games, for instance) without also thinking of the way I told that story (exaggerating my drunkenness, faking embarrassment, hiding the things that really bothered me). We give such credence to the big moments, but they’re inseparable from the ways we come to know them. So much diffuses through the wool.
It’s dreary, sometimes, listening to everyone tell the same stories, working through the same dull preoccupations, revealing the same anxieties. It’s frustrating, other times, going through that same process, thinking about what you’ve revealed of your own limitations — because you can’t escape your own patterns. And it’s terrifying, realizing that your patterns also depend on bigger patterns. We float on currents beyond our control, whether economic, social or historical, in bubbles that we don’t fully understand.
But still, we talk. We try to escape our bubbles, and failing that, to measure their dimensions. We collide with each other. We have lunches, drinks, times before and after section, the lazy, pointless gatherings in apartments and common rooms late at night while the radiator buzzes on and off.
Until, of course, we don’t. The day this article goes to print will be my last day of classes (curse you, Friday computer science lecture). Many big moments approach us graduating seniors, but we have less time to process them. The scaffolding of predictable experience drops off, as life turns Evel Knievel and backflips over a succession of endings: finals, Myrtle, senior week, Class Day, commencement.
I feel weightless. What will I do without that routine, without those friendships, without that certainty? Where will I land?
Here is my only comfort: Eventually, after the parties and ceremonies, after packing up all my books and my clothes, after the last dinners and the last drinks, after the goodbyes and the promises never to forget each other, I’ll land in the cotton wool. I have to. A schedule will form, in some new apartment, in some different city. Once I’ve found new restaurants, a laundromat, a park down the street. Once I’ve built a new set of friends (some old, some new). Once I’ve started to forget the patterns of Yale — when the dining hall serves chicken tenders, the best use of a Durfee’s swipe, how long it takes to walk from Silliman to the YDN (in fair weather, snow and rain).
Then, there will be new big moments and new epiphanies, of a different kind than the college ones, colored more by responsibility and age. Then, we’ll tell different stories and, occasionally, pull out the old ones — though in new circumstances they will reveal new meanings, like dusty pebbles polished in a stream.
The stories from graduation too, will be stories that we tell. In that next apartment, in the city after that. Until we’ve found a routine so remote that we only feel the reverberations of our college anxieties at distance.
And this too will seem calming and stifling, ordinary and beautiful.