April 30, 2014

CASTLE | Getting Free

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This is my last column. When I was thinking about what to write, I had a few ideas: Maybe I’d try to impart advice or play the advocate, make a strongly-worded argument for reforming mental health leave policy; call for accountability to students and workers by rethinking university priorities regarding bus passes, tuition increases or lavish but utterly unnecessary projects; maybe I’d take up any number of social justice causes the University could stand to hear about. I thought about using my last words to declare respect and gratitude for the mentors and allies I’ve found in the halls of the University; I might tell you all that in my friends I’ve found soul mates in the shadow of the tower. Maybe I’d craft a public expression of humble thanks for those that have had patience with me, for the many who have made my life better, even if just a little bit, even just for a little while — I’m talking about the friends and strangers alike who have gone out of their way for me, the familiar characters with whom I exchange smiles, the lover sleeping next to me as I write this. Then, as if a completing Cornell-related, love-hate, trauma-induced emotional cycle, I thought about throwing my hat in the ring one more time — perhaps with an indictment of a suicidal neoliberalism as we snowball toward apocalypse, or a critique of the corporate university, maybe one last jab at my self-important conservative peers.

There’s so much I could say, but I want to resist the urge to be the didactic senior, the sentimental alumna-to-be or the embittered ex — though, depending on how you read this, you might think I’m a bit of all three. So instead of elaborating on any of that, I want to write about what it means for me to be starting May 2014.

The last time I met the month of May, I was in bad shape. I hadn’t been sleeping for weeks. I would lie in bed, but I couldn’t keep my eyes closed for more than a few minutes. I used to lie awake, anxious and feeling small, contemplating the state of the world, reading thinky texts that only made things worse, thinking about what I had to do but couldn’t. I listened to the squirrels who had made their home in my walls. It was at a point where I had learned, from the haphazard application of my liberal arts education to my actual life, how to deconstruct anything and everything. But I had not yet learned how to build something new — I still haven’t figured this out — though I’m still looking, it doesn’t feel like the freefall it once did. I was fighting unwinnable battles and I spent a lot of time moving between intensity, ironic laughter, resignation and anger. It was a scary type of free. My friends kept me sane.

Some commiserated, some sought to distract. We’d go hiking, camping, drinking, dancing. We’d attend inspiring talks or take trips to see our friends. We’d crack open a beer or smoke on my balcony, laughing, theorizing, ranting, whatever. I love them all but there’s one I lost and at the risk of aggrandizing the dead, I want to say that my friend Chris Dennis ’13 saved me. I probably would have survived without him but he gave me something special. Chris remains the most free-spirited and impassioned person I have ever met. He spoke his truth, he was never self-conscious and he loved with warmth and integrity. I could see it in the way he looked at me, the way he talked about his band of brothers, the way he considered his girlfriend. When we made our lists of semester goals, I typed as he dictated. The first thing he said was, “Spend more time with family.” He had an incredible sense of adventure and understanding of motion — if he wanted to go camping he’d come over with a tent and bag of summer sausage; if he wanted to exercise the feeling of movement, he’d become an acrobat, so naturally athletic, sometimes he’d jump clear over my head. The day he disappeared in a canoeing accident, we defied the sheriff’s orders and took flashlights out, walking through the backyards of abandoned lake houses, looking in the dark water for the body of our friend. The next morning, we came back with a hundred volunteers and we didn’t stop looking until we had covered Cayuga Lake’s perimeter four times over and his family was ready to hold a memorial. When my friends walked at graduation they cried. I sat watching them, feeling them, holding the hand of another. When President David Skorton acknowledged Chris and our ongoing search effort, we cried too. That will always be part of what May means to me.

In the larger scope of things, I know that I am a very small part of a series of long and intersecting histories. Somehow between last May and now, I became okay with being small. Historically, and still globally, beginning May means celebrating a history of workers’ rights. For my part of history, it means moving toward graduation. Though I have a complex relationship to the University, I know that my presence at Cornell — and on Earth — if overdetermined, is the product of love, struggle and labor by those who have loved me but also by so very many people who I have never even met. I am humbled by this knowledge and I accept it as my responsibility to continue that work, not only for myself but also for others who might benefit in some small way from something I can do. For me, this is not obligation but liberation. I have the privilege of leisure time that I can dedicate to writing, organizing, fighting tooth and nail. I have time and security with which to practice loving. I am strong-bodied and smart — I can work with the expectation of fair pay and humane treatment. I can pick up and leave knowing I have many homes to which I might return. Though I am skeptical of ideas like “freedom” — it is often used falsely, and there are always conditions — I cannot help but feel I have encountered something like it, I have reached a new proximity to its best approximation. I leave here knowing this and I am grateful to the countless workers, mothers, sisters and brothers who have sacrificed to afford me this feeling.

After Chris died, some of our activist friends fought harder, with him in their hearts. I shut down. I have only re-engaged in the past weeks, on my way out of here, and I feel stronger for it. I can’t explain how much I appreciate the people who are organizing on campus. In a community, there are people to carry on when one needs to rest, and that’s how we survive. To celebrate the legacy of people who fought for me, for all of us who want to be valued for who we are and what we do, I encourage you all to read about May Day, and join us on Ho Plaza at noon today. I know Chris would be there with his camera rolling.