I think I cracked the secret to adulthood many years and mistakes before I was supposed to: Wash your dishes when you dirty them. It’s advice that hits like “be yourself.” I hear you, I know you’re right, but I just can’t right now. Freshman year, my roommate and I built an impressive stack of dishes atop our microfridge that grew taller with every extracurricular and four-credit course we added. The evidence of our five-minute breakfasts and midnight ramen became the leaning tower of “yeses” we said to everyone but ourselves.
I thought I would miss so much about my former Cornell life. I feared for my well-being now that a shift at Temple of Zeus can’t satiate every need from a wage to nourishment. I wondered what would become of my daily dopamine fix when I couldn’t toast a bagel for friends waving over the counter. I especially lamented a life sans entertainment from faces that made group chats detonate with “you’ll NEVER guess who I just ran into” texts. Now, I feel autonomy as I use my time to wash my dishes right after I use them. My head is quiet and present. When saying “no” often goes without saying, I don’t run through a mental checklist of each force that must be responded to before I lay my head on a pillow. But to not shy away from our clutter during the messiest academic year of Cornell’s history and our own is a choice.
Maybe you assured your family that you would take the precautions to keep yourself protected. Maybe now when the weekend comes, you find yourself deliberating whether saying yes to an outing with one sort-of-close friend and their housemates could qualify as unsafe behavior. It probably does, and you should say no, or you are the risk. Maybe your Instagram self announced in June that you would not proceed in your Cornell circles until you address how the very foundation of your social currency relies on the marginalization of Black and brown bodies. Maybe your time now with those people is reflective of a collective exhaustion you feel. You should say no to settling for escapist conversations night after night, or you are the risk. Do not choose to move on from the messes that only became visible to you this year — with your mask dangling from one ear, mind you — as you throw back CTB sangria and hit up Ithaca Beer Co. believing you’re a savior of the local economy for dining out with your 20 best friends. You are the risk.
Just because you’ve entered Ithaca, you have not departed 2020. If you’re part of the demographic for whom the coronavirus is still just that — a virus — and not the most cataclysmic shift that aligned every possible tragedy in your world, your work of learning and unlearning is not done. Having some semblance of a college structure with access to semiweekly testing could mean you’re living the best case scenario of anyone in the U.S. in a worst-cases only year. You don’t have to fix any trauma; in fact, you probably can’t. But out of respect for the unknown names in your Zoom classes who suffered loss in the last five months on film for the Internet to see or at a hospital bed they couldn’t visit, don’t believe that the pain can be paused because it remains a distant phenomenon to you. The recent realities of many Cornellians may have made some return to campus different from the people they were when they left one Friday the thirteenth in March many, many years ago in a world far, far away.
This mislabeled school year is not a University reopening. It is a questionable invitation from our administration to shift our place of quarantine from a home environment that perhaps was taxing or eliminated our independence to a campus that simply can’t promise protection. With the lengthy terms and conditions involved, the time ahead of us now is an opportunity to do what we can with the time we have in a chapter of youth that was always fleeting, in a special place that always had an expiration date.
There’s a list of senior year bucket list items in my Notes app that my friend and I drafted in that former Cornell life of yeses to the external world. It doesn’t haunt or depress me that none of the items will be fulfilled in my four years here. Get hockey season passes and attend every home game. Take wines. Attend all of the fests: Apple, Wizarding, Ice, Chili. I trade this list now for dates with myself at Sunset Park, an empty Arts Quad at odd hours of the day, and porch dinners accompanied by laughter at “Twilight” and into twilight with the women who saw me without a mask on before I ever had to wear a real one.
As I hover over the sink every night, I’m confronted with my messes. I need a job. I can’t distill my growth and everything that makes me so mad I want to spend the rest of my life working to better it into a 500-character text box for a potential employer. After making it through organic chemistry or 20-page essays that make everything else feel doable, I still feel stifled by standardized tests. I’m just one of many students who have yet to receive a financial aid statement despite the first tuition payment deadline now a week behind us. I’m convinced that schoolwork is actually the distraction from real life this time around. And I stay in my messes. I pick them up plate by plate. I intend to say a lot of nos this year. I think it will bring me a lot of personal yeses.
Paris Ghazi is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. La Vie en Prose runs alternate Mondays this semester.