My thoughts tend to drift to home nowadays. It’s not out of nostalgia or homesickness. It’s out of appreciation. I’ve been in Ithaca for three weeks now after spending last semester in Miami studying remotely. And the reason why these three weeks have gone so well is directly because I was home last semester. It’s directly because of a little blue recipe book I brought with me.
When I made the decision to stay home last semester, I was worried. I knew that I would see practically no one besides my parents out of caution for their health. I knew I would miss out on a lot, and I’d be constantly reminded of that fact via the ever-present Snap stories of all the experiences I’d elected not to have this semester. I knew quite honestly that it would be difficult.
I also knew that, if nothing else, I’d at least be eating well. As I’ve written about before, living with my family feels similar to sleeping in a booth in your favorite Italian restaurant. It’s the kind of home where you roll out of bed in the morning, and the tomato sauce is already simmering on the stove with a Post-it note on the refrigerator reminding you to stir it. As last semester began, I resolved to write down my family’s recipes and learn to make as many of them as I could. If nothing else, I figured, I would return to Ithaca in the spring ready to make some truly legendary dinners for my much missed friends.
As I began scribbling recipes into a little blue notebook — my chicken scratch handwriting crawling up the margins and reminding me to “add a little pancetta if you have some” or “stir every ten minutes” — I began to see it as something more than just hoarding recipes for next semester. It became a kind of grounding.
As we spend our days floating as disembodied boxes on Zoom screens, refreshing CNN for each new, alarming headline, checking Cornell’s COVID-19 alert level, internally debating whether or not it’s worth seeing someone because of the virus and wondering what in the world any of us are supposed to do after graduation in this ailing economy, we realize that our lives are dominated by uncertainty.
There’s a perpetual kind of confusion which comes with coming of age in the COVID era –– a pervading anxiety because none of us ever know exactly what we’re doing, or what we’re supposed to be doing. It all feels surreal in a way not made easier by the fact that everything is virtual and thereby inherently not entirely real.
When I was at home last semester, there were ‘real’ things which kept me grounded amidst this great uncertainty. There was sauce simmering in pots on the stove. There was my father clearly enjoying himself as he planned a week’s worth of meals while ordering on the Instacart app. There was my mother dancing in the kitchen while we washed dishes together with Jefferson Airplane blaring out of the kitchen radio in the background. There was an ability to remain grounded in a time where it feels like gravity has ceased to exist, and we’re all grasping at the walls, trying to latch onto a coat hook or a doorknob to avoid floating off into Zoom space.
That grounding, those conversations I had with my parents before, during and after those dinners, genuinely helped me last semester. It helped me to avoid the dreaded Zoom fatigue we all come to feel. It helped me to keep focused on the long term perspective beyond the daily stresses of an academic semester with few breaks and added obstacles to learning. It helped me return to campus in the spring not just with a book of recipes for Italian food but a book of recipes for maintaining good mental health while pushing myself academically during these strange times.
That, in and of itself, was a result of significant privilege — the fact that we were lucky enough to have enough food on the table when so many families are struggling, the fact that I have a loving and supportive family when that unfortunately isn’t the case for everyone. There are a lot of students for whom finding comfort from their family just isn’t realistic. But I’ve come to believe that wherever you find it, whether it’s with your family or friends who come to feel like family, it’s essential as we enter another Zoom dominated semester (and one without any significant breaks) that you find ways to stay connected to the little hobbies –– the little non-virtual traditions which mean something to you.
Your mental health has to come first. On a campus where more than 40 percent of students were “unable to function academically for at least a week due to depression, stress or anxiety” even pre-COVID, we have to make a concerted effort to do the little things which fulfill us when life around us doesn’t. And when more help is needed, we can’t be afraid to ask for it.
As we start this semester, fall back onto whatever fulfills you and carry it with you. For me, it’s a little blue recipe book.
Andrew V. Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.