When I entered Davenport’s courtyard for the first time, the week my Yale career started, I was struck by its sweeping open lawn and its perimeter of Georgian architecture. My mind leapt to the realization that the contours of these buildings and spaces would confront me countless times over the next few years. The first time you see a new environment, the screen of your mind transitions from indeterminate white to glorious clarity. The name “Davenport” was transformed into experience when I passed under its triple arches that August day.
After only a few weeks, even days sometimes, the newness fades. As we trace the path from classroom to dorm and as October fades to November, we’re not zapped by the feeling of new environments engraving themselves on our minds. The trek up Science Hill today looks pretty much like the trek up Science Hill did last Monday. It even looks similar enough between freshman and senior year. We reach a state of flow with the world, leading us to ignore everything except the small, dynamic things — like our exams and friends — instead of the larger, static picture: the courtyard, the buildings, life in general.
Except these things aren’t actually static: they just seem that way. Time passes and shows its dynamism, unraveling the habits that fooled us into complacency. But as a second-semester senior, I conceptualize my soon-to-be present as an indeterminate white expanse. I have a new backdrop on which to bring the contours of Davenport into focus.
For me, life becomes more wonderful when I’m granted this ability to perceive. And to be fair, this type of perception isn’t wholly subject to circumstance; we can deliberately built it ourselves through intellectual logic and emotional resonance. This perception of immediacy holds a certain danger however, because it can trigger an attendant feeling of angst. I’ve taken to calling this feeling “nostalgia for the present.” The sentiment makes us view our existence like water cupped in our hands. Try as we might, we can’t prevent the liquid from flowing through our fingers.
I’ve felt this angst all throughout college, but I feel it more strongly now. Every time I head to Woad’s or a suite party, I’m conscious of the infinite possibility of the present, the cornucopia of people, music and color on display. Simultaneously, I hate that all my unprocessable infinity of experience becomes horribly reduced into single memories. I look back on wonderful nights at Yale and see that the glorious present has been shoehorned into blurry frames of the past.
I categorize this feeling as nostalgia because it makes our hearts pine for a certain vibe, a specific time and place. But instead of making us crave a bygone era that can never rematerialize, this type of nostalgia makes us pine for what we already possess. We anticipate that the future will create a sense of nostalgia for our current lives, and so that nostalgia slips from the future into the present. We feel the need to keep holding onto the water, yet there’s less and less and less of it.
And so two forces battle each other. The forces of habit deaden our sensitivity to the wondrous qualities of experience, both in Yale and in life. But the passage of time makes those wonders come alive at the price of existential angst. How can we navigate this tension? I can’t answer to satisfaction, but I have some suggestions. Life beyond college (and beyond that) is not a cup of water that falls through our hands. It’s a continuous stream that replenishes with new experiences and with newness what trickles away. Perhaps nostalgia for the present is a form of unfinished business, a failure to act. If so, we can soothe our angst by throwing ourselves into life with increased vigor.
I’ve taken to wandering around campus, trying to find new study places — the solitary desks between Sterling’s musty stacks, that room with the moldings under the Pierson cupola. I’ll spend a few hours doing work while taking periodic breaks to absorb my thoughts into the space surrounding me. By doing this, I’m conscious of the beauty of the moment, since the visual environment is new. And slowly the feeling of nostalgia becomes something else: a consciousness of the value in the present, but without an attendant anxiety. That is the state of balance I always want to exist in.
Ezriel Gelbfish is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at email@example.com .