We were walking in a picture-perfect Connecticut afternoon. The soft breeze chilled our fingers, and the sun was beginning to warp our shadows as we started down Prospect Street.
It was still autumn; it was Halloween, and about a week ago, a friend and I had decided to visit East Rock Park. We wandered past streets of neatly packed suburban homes, fallen leaves crunching underfoot.
Looking back, I remember how heavy I’d felt that month. The past eight weeks — an endless procession of class, work and sleep — had dulled the initial excitement of school. I received my first grades on a chemistry test; I trundled through Zoom classes, one after the other; I sank myself into Greek plays and Aristotle for hours until my eyes smarted. Weekends were spent writing, and weekdays studying. I watched as my classmates in seminar discussions, self-assured and assertive, seamlessly skated between the pages of Plato and college life while I struggled to catch up with weekly readings. Friends ran errands and visited Insomnia Cookies at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights as I tried to pull my life together.
There had been meals when my suitemate commiserated with me on the struggles of college life over our plastic dinner containers. There were afternoons when I mindlessly scrolled through the Google Maps street view of my own neighborhood, hungering for the vicarious, virtual comfort of home. Then there were the late nights when, shakily clutching my phone — stricken with a strange mix of homesickness and impostor syndrome — I simply told my mom I couldn’t do school anymore.
Call it momentary disorientation. Growing pains? Freshman confusion, perhaps. I wondered why I had come to college in the first place. What happened to the pictures of students gathered on grassy lawns, untroubled by grades and prospective careers, that had been plastered across the front covers of college pamphlets? What was the Yale experience I had imagined, and what did I want to make of this time?
Up until now, college had been a fixed destination, a North Star to which I diligently journeyed. Now, I’d entered a new chapter as daunting and disorienting as it was thrilling, the vast expanse of all of life’s possibilities stretched out before me. I had to make decisions. I had to make something of my time here. I had to accept opportunity costs, strike a balance, mark my own trail in the search of some deeper purpose for fear of letting these precious years slip away to become just another blip in my life.
That’s not to say finding new meaning is any easy task. My metaphorical inner compass still hasn’t quite found its bearings. I’ve wrestled with the question of my future, pondered potential paths and soul-searched, often arriving at no clearer answers than those I began with. I’m struck just as often with a paralyzing fear that I might never truly know which direction to go, that I’ll end up pursuing something I ultimately can’t achieve or, worse, searching in all the wrong places.
But the beauty is in knowing I’m not entirely alone.
We entered East Rock Park, walking for another quarter mile under the oaks before arriving at the base of the summit, a set of narrow, rugged stairs that led up to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. The steps were steep, irregular, but parts of the cast-iron railing had become bronze, burnished by the countless other hands before me. I set my foot in the small dents and angles of the stone steps, little nooks and crannies formed by the shoe soles of fellow wayfaring wanderers. With whitened knuckles I gripped the rails and set my feet onto whatever favorably smooth surface I could find. I calculated only my next step.
I’ve decided not to sketch out any grand life plans. For what they’re worth, our stories, self-authored narratives and scribbled bucket lists might limit us as much as they try to offer direction. I might not find all the answers. I can only learn to navigate life — a weekend Zoom meeting, a seminar discussion, a problem set — one foot at a time.
By the end, the tired cliches of “journeys,” “destinations” and “living life in the moment” might not have missed the mark by too far. Perhaps the beauty of it all — Yale, life and more — lies in learning to stumble and to brush the dirt off our knees. To feel something in the very act of moving, of being.
The air was crisp and cool, sharpened by the overnight rain. For the first time in months, the sweet scent of fallen leaves wafted through my Clorox-scented mask and nipped at my nose. The half-bare trees bristled in light wind. It felt myth-like, dream-like.
We continued up the stairs, my shoes surveying the rocks before me — all fallen quiet except for the steady certainty of each step, the occasional rustle of the trees, the sound of footfalls slowly making their way to higher ground.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column, titled ‘Thoughtful spot,’ runs every other Thursday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.