The Things We Carry
The pandemic has prompted one Mirror writer to reassess the meaning of "home."
Even during a normal year, Dartmouth students are a mobile group. Between off-terms, study abroads and our extra-long winter break, many students find themselves changing housing situations relatively often. However, as COVID-19 continues to restrict the stability and availability of on-campus housing, students’ movements in and out of campus have shifted from periodic to constant.
A few days ago, I moved into my fourth residence this school year: a cute shoebox apartment in the Wheelocks. As I sat down to write this article, I realized I haven’t slept in the same bed for longer than four months since beginning at Dartmouth in 2019. This reality has forced me to rethink the way I define my “home,” which is an elusive concept even in the best of times. Long Beach, California is my home, but this year I’ll only be there for six weeks, if that. Dartmouth is also my home, but these days it feels like I’m more of a potential health risk than a valued resident being welcomed in.
One of the things that makes Dartmouth special is its sense of place. There is something so unique, so important and so irreplicable about being here that hundreds of students without on campus housing were willing to rent second-rate Airbnbs in Lebanon, Norwich and Quechee just to get a fraction of that experience.
Like my peers, I love the Upper Valley for the fall colors, the winter skiing and the spring bloom. I love Dirt Cowboy and walks around Occom and my beautiful college campus in the middle of nowhere. These things are part of the reason I keep looking for scarce Hanover housing each term. However, I’ve realized that my home doesn’t only consist of these spaces that I enter and exit. Beginning this year, “home” is also something I’ve started to carry around with me.
All of my moving-in and moving-out this year has given me plenty of time to examine what exactly I take with me when I go places, and each of the things I’ve chosen tells a part of the story.
I was sitting in the back of Chem 5 last winter when I ordered the Nike blazer high tops that are first on this short list of things. Walking through the snow in my new shoes, I felt like the cool, gay college girl I envisioned myself becoming. When I flew home to California for spring break, I left my shoes in Midfay, certain that I would see them again in two weeks. As spring break at home became spring term and then summer, one of the things I strangely missed the most were my Nike blazers. For something as silly and small as a pair of shoes, they represented a set of much greater losses.
When COVID-19 interrupted my college experience, I lost the sense of self those shoes had created in me. The feelings of newness, freedom and joyful self-expression were things I just didn’t know how to conjure from my childhood bedroom. As I mourned the absence of my shoes, that’s what I really missed.
When I finally retrieved my shoes from storage in the fall, it wasn’t a triumphant return to campus. But, in ways I couldn’t have foreseen, I had started to become the person I’d imagined myself being despite losing the feeling of endless possibility that my Dartmouth experience once provided. My Nike blazers are a physical reminder of that bittersweet process, and I’m wearing them even now as I write, because they are a part of the home I carry with me whenever I move.
There is a small print of Monet’s “Arrival of a Train” that I also bring with me wherever I reside as a reminder that confusing things rarely stay that way. I was given the print by my first girlfriend, and its presence on my wall is a byproduct of the joyful and confusing process of learning that I liked not only art history, but also girls. When I look at the painting now, I don’t experience the same rush of emotions I felt when it first came into my possession. In their place, I have a sense of real clarity about who I am, what I want, and the intellectual pursuits I enjoy. There was a time last year when I couldn’t have imagined feeling so certain about myself, but all of those moments — and my more recent clarity — form the home I carry with me now.
A navy blue flannel hangs on the hook by the door of my apartment, and it is the last item on my short list. Unlike the other things I’ve chosen, this flannel is a new addition to my mobile “home,” and this spring is the first time it has travelled with me to Hanover. The flannel was my dad’s favorite, and I borrowed it for all of spring break, but as I left for Dartmouth this term he let me take it for good. It wasn’t a very big deal, but it felt like a full-circle moment in the pursuit of joyful self-expression that I thought I’d lost last spring.
Nowadays, I will proudly declare that I’m done with being straight-passing, but last fall I was a long way from writing about being gay and taking my dad’s flannels. Something about wearing my dad’s favorite flannel shirt feels as much like home as any geographic location I’ve occupied in the past nine months.
Wherever I go next, I will take these things with me. Each of them tells a bit of the story of my past year of loneliness and discovery and process of becoming. They are also physical reminders of how elastic the idea of a “home” can be, and instead of breaking my connection to the home I found at Dartmouth, COVID-19 showed me ways I never would have imagined it could bend.