From her room to mine: finding an 'Opposite of Loneliness' at Bowdoin
I met Harriet on the first day we got back from Pre-Orientation trips; she lived on the second floor of Maine Hall and I lived on the third floor. We were both from Brooklyn, so we talked about that, and I learned that she has a tendency to laugh while she talks, turning her sentences into word-laugh-noise mashups.
I asked Harriet for a book recommendation because she’s the illustrious president of our student body—and also my best friend. At first she couldn’t decide, and we bounced ideas across the hallway from her room to mine. And then she chose: “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan.
Harriet and I don’t usually read the same books, which isn’t to say that we don’t often share the same opinions. She prefers non-fiction and tells me about the ways that our stomach bacteria are influencing our lives. I adore Tock and “Phantom Tollbooth”; Harriet is disgusted by talking animals.
So, fittingly, “The Opposite of Loneliness” is half short stories and half non-fiction essays. It’s part viral sensation and part celebration of life, of really living. Marina Keegan died in a car crash in 2012, five days after graduating from Yale University, and her collection was published posthumously.
There is something strange, and terribly sad, about reading works written by someone in exactly the same stage of life that I am in right now—pre-graduation from an elite college, hoping to move on and work in a creative industry and stay happy—and knowing that the writer will always remain right where she was. Keegan talks about death, but she mostly talks about life and about love. She uses an unprecedented number of exclamation points. She is clearly brilliant.
The introduction to the book celebrates Keegan’s ability to write as a 21-year-old, to chew on the unique angst of young adulthood, the moments of being “young and uncertain and starry-eyed and frustrated and hopeful.” Keegan wrote about young graduates flocking to consulting jobs without quite knowing why. She wrote a story that is bizarrely, humorously relatable: how would you feel if the person you’d been hooking up with (but not dating!) died, and their mother asked you to speak at their funeral?
Some of the pieces in the collection (“Cold Pastoral”, “Against the Grain”) worked for me better than others did (“The Art of Observation”). But throughout I was struck—as promised—by Keegan’s dedication to her craft. She writes with a determination to share her stories, to have her voice heard.
And then there’s “The Opposite of Loneliness.” As a graduating senior, it feels almost impossible to know what to write about the titular essay in the collection, which was read by over a million people in the weeks following Keegan’s death.
“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life … It’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team,” she writes. And then, at the very end: “I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale … And we don’t have to lose that.”
While reading “The Opposite of Loneliness,” I inevitably thought about my time at Bowdoin. But I also thought about Harriet. I felt the poetry of her choosing this book, not just as a collection that deeply impacted her, but as something she wanted me to read. Because Harriet is my opposite of loneliness. And we don’t have to lose that.
Voraciously readable: James Baldwin confronts race relations through time
When I approached Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry at the end of class and asked her for the name of the book that has most influenced her, she had an instant response. When I asked why, she called her choice—"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin—revelatory. “Hallelujah,” she said.
"The Fire Next Time" pairs a letter, entitled “My Dungeon Shook,” that Baldwin wrote to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of Emancipation along with his essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in my Mind.” Published in 1963, "The Fire Next Time" is philosophy, theology, sociology and a cultural history of American race relations. It is also voraciously readable: Baldwin’s brilliance is both sociopolitical and linguistic.
He writes about the experience of being a black Christian man in the 1960s with elegance and a surprisingly lilting sense of hope within his clear condemnation of American society: “The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.” To a reader, Baldwin’s language is beautiful, heart-wrenching and indicative of the similarities between 1963 and 2017.
James Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924. “Down at the Cross” covers his experiences as a young black man in Harlem, exploring religion as an alternative to the perceived depravity of life “on the Avenue,” and to the snarling realities of American racism. My class with Professor Casselberry, Spirit Come Down: Religion, Race, and Gender in America, cuts to the heart of intersectional scholarship by centralizing black women in narratives of black American religion. Both pieces in "The Fire Next Time" have a decidedly male perspective. Even while Baldwin writes about the female preacher who inspired his own religious conversion, he is writing to the male experience. But Baldwin, a gay black man, brings his own angle to the themes of identity and sexuality that inform his discussion about race and religion.
“My Dungeon Shook” is only twelve pages, but its intimacy shook me almost more than the entirety of the book’s following essay. Writing to his nephew in the 20th century, Baldwin is speaking directly to the history and lived experience of black men. His words on American race relations and identity find ironic prophesy in their applicability to our time.
Speaking of the racism of white people toward black people, Baldwin tells his nephew: “Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” He strikes to the heart of the current ongoing conversations at Bowdoin and nationwide about the importance of "showing up" and decentralizing the emotional responses of white allies.
"The Fire Next Time" is beautiful in its lucidity and its calm perceptiveness. I found it thought-provoking both personally and academically, recommended by a professor who has deeply impacted many of my classmates. "The Fire Next Time" stretches from the personal to the classroom to the wide world, from history to the present and into the future. This book is literary nonfiction at its best, rightfully considered one of the most important books on American race relations, and a testament to the lasting power of James Baldwin.
Worth its weight in words
“There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” So begins "The Phantom Tollbooth," Norton Juster’s 1961 classic, and the book I have concluded has influenced me more profoundly than any other.
The question seems deceptively simple: what is the book or other work of literature that has most influenced you? I believe everybody has at least one—even self-proclaimed non-readers—but I also think they can be hard to spot and even harder to talk about. The works we choose to read reflect our individual psyches within our social and intellectual worlds.
"The Phantom Tollbooth" is one of the most literal explorations of an individual person within his social and intellectual realms, and that is perhaps why I love it so dearly. As Milo travels through the city of Dictionopolis, through the Doldrums and towards the Sea of Knowledge, he finds the world anew through intellectual engagement, heavy sarcasm and pure whimsy. He sees the beauty of the princesses Rhyme and Reason, he comes to term with expectations and he crunches on the tasty, delicious letters in the Word Market.
We, like Milo, are surrounded by words, and those words are taking on new shapes: memes and lengthy opinion pieces flash across screens, the news is stuffed with “alternative facts” and online self-publication is an ever-growing tool for disseminating information. Being an engaged, thoughtful and critical reader is continually more and more important. What we read can shape our ideas, opinions and understanding of the world. Princess Rhyme says it best: “It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”
The written word responds to its reader like a painting responds to its viewer; every reader draws her own meaning from a text or her own particular emotions from a story.
I first read "The Phantom Tollbooth" some time in elementary school. I was hard-pressed to choose it for this column over other books that have been incredibly influential in my life: Albert Camus’ "The Stranger," "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, Anne Frank’s incomparable "The Diary of a Young Girl." The runner-up was "Communion: The Female Search for Love," by bell hooks, which transfixed me with its masterful rendering of gender politics and intersectional feminism. I have recommended that book to so many people that my personal copy has long since fallen into others’ hands.
But my infatuation with "The Phantom Tollbooth" can be summed up in one quote. That quote frames my vision for this column, which will focus on coercing other people into giving me book recommendations (including from childhood!), and then reading those books, thinking about them, (hopefully) enjoying them and writing about them.
Some recommendations I’ve gotten for this column so far include "Bossypants" by Tina Fey, "To The Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf and "Holes" by Louis Sachar. They are as different as their recommenders, and all deserving of a good read.
My favorite quote is as follows: “You can swim all day in the Sea of Knowledge and not get wet.” That sea encompasses "Communion," "The Stranger" and so many other works of literature. My conclusion in this mixed-up world is that reading is good, and learning is good and giant clock dogs are also really good. If you haven’t read "The Phantom Tollbooth," it is wryly funny and charming and could possibly change your life—try it.
Exploring maine: Looking at nature as an antidote for the cold winter season
This week was the first snowfall in Brunswick, always the most welcomed. December has a way of wiping everything clean, as if the very environment is preparing for the New Year’s proverbial clean slate. This New Year feels shaky; our next semester and my final semester at Bowdoin will begin as our country begins a new chapter, a slate that feels dirty before it’s even arrived.
The Maine winter changes our ability to interact with our environment and marks an enormous (if oft-despised) part of what makes this place what it is. The cold and the snow are some of the most common topics any non-Mainer will raise with a Bowdoin student, and we’ve all probably spent about a cumulative week of our Bowdoin experience bemoaning the weather—because it was 25 degrees last night, and I wear a coat when it’s 65.
On Monday as the snow fell like a slow exhalation, I went to the Commons to take a walk. Not yet icy but already sparkling, the paths are familiar and new again. Stopping with my friend by the pond, he threw dead branches against the slushy ice to watch it splatter with satisfying cracks.
The pine branches are dressed in layers of crystal, the bare twigs of deciduous trees white-capped like tiny waves. Shake them hard and the snow will explode into flurries before trembling down to settle on the ground.
My Maine winters come in contrast to 18 years of Brooklyn winters, with their rare moments of stillness amongst the grey slush and the immediate sweat upon stepping from the cold streets into the heated subway cars. New York winters are ice skating in the parks and scurrying to coffee shops; they are as cozy and crowded as the city can be. They’re also grimy.
My Maine winters have been wearing sweaters and two coats and at least two hand-knit scarves to hustle across campus and burst into a building to finally feel the blood rushing back into my face. They have been running out onto the frozen ice at Simpson’s Point with the same giddy feelings that bubble while swimming there in the summer. They have been waking in the dark of 5:30 a.m. to drive to Popham and watch the sun stretch up and out over the untouched swathes of snow reaching the foam on the beach.
Winter is also the exploration of inward places, the mornings spent watching snow through the window and just staying inside, the nights doing homework huddled under blankets because your off-campus house has “horsehair” insulation (which doesn’t seem to do much insulating at all). Winter is both the squirrels conserving energy in their drays and the dogs ploughing wildly through the snow on the quad.
Finding the ways to connect and commune with this place in its literal darkest times has brought a stability and cyclicality to my time at Bowdoin. Also, after visiting Texas in July and realizing that oppressive heat makes it just as impossible to be outside for longer than five minutes as the cold does, I’m trying to see even the temperature as an equal part of the whole season.
No matter the season, and even no matter the turmoil of that particular season, I think nature can be an antidote—even if that antidote is best taken from inside a cozy house. The ingrained symbolism of seasons is not lost on my cosmological sentimentality as fall becomes winter, which looks forward to spring.
This winter will be marked by uncertainty and fear and radical changes. I want it to also be marked with the reaffirmation of the determined beauty of the natural world, and as much good, old-fashioned playing in the snow as my toes can take.
Exploring maine: Exploring activism in Brunswick and beyond: our places as political spaces
Our sense of place may be seen as inherently connected to our physical location, but at the same time, we are connected to innumerable places at any given moment, regardless of where we are. I usually write about my explorations of Maine’s beautiful coast—my search for connections in the pebbly serenity of my adopted home state. But over the past week and a half, I have been compelled to reevaluate my sense of place within the historical and present political context of physical and emotional safety in Brunswick.
A presidential election radically shifts our sense of place from the micro to the macro: we become not just Bowdoin students or New Yorkers but residents of the U.S. We become aware not just of the people within our communities but the people living in the remarkably different communities, from this small town on the Atlantic to across the country on the Pacific.
From coast to coast, the U.S. has not recently been a safe place for an incredible number of its residents. It has been some time since we have had a major political leader who normalizes vitriolic language and has built a campaign on the exclusion and hatred of groups of people, but racism—and classism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia, ableism and xenophobia—are American realities and have been American realities throughout national history. To overlook this history in the face of new political concerns is to overlook the generations of people who have been fighting and waiting and struggling.
Here in our Brunswick microcosm, within the first week following the election, I heard stories about aggressive harassment over Hillary Clinton bumper stickers, conflicts between students and town residents and schoolchildren yelling racial slurs out of school bus windows. But in the United States macrocosm, these instances are neither novel nor one-off.
During my three and a half years at Bowdoin, there have been explicit reports of racism, homophobia and sexism manifested through language and violence—not to mention the innumerable moments that go unreported and affect people of so many identities. There was a violent homophobic altercation on Maine Street and many cases of sexual violence, harassment and rape. Within the past year alone, three explicit acts of racial bias occurred on campus. Discrimination, marginalization and fear for personal safety are not new to this place, but neither is the fight and the struggle that many are beginning to participate in for the first time. Privilege—white privilege—is never so clear as when people begin to experience fear for the first time, without realizing that their neighbors, friends and classmates have been experiencing fear—and fighting against discrimination—for their entire lives.
This week, I’m not going to visit any beautiful Maine locations (although that respite is one that everyone should still take, and I could write pages upon pages about my fears and griefs regarding Trump’s environmental policies and the potential for literal destruction of this place I love so dearly). Instead, I’m planning to attend on-campus events about experiences of discrimination, go to Portland for community meetings and join students who are planning political actions. Those are a few of my own ways to understand how hometowns have become even less safe for so, so many people in the past week and to contextualize my sense of place within that reality.
Caught between the micro and the macro, the awful truths of the past and the terrifying realities of the present “place” takes on new, layered meanings. It holds the memories from which we should learn and possibilities towards which we should look forward. But it also carries the physical and emotional well-being of marginalized people across all identities. It carries the fears of people who are being told that places, from their home towns to the entire U.S., will no longer be open to them. As a white woman living with chronic illness, I am looking for ways in which I can continue to be a better ally, a better listener and a better fighter, for everyone experiencing marginalization who have always been fighting. For me, it’s not about making our country great again, but making our places safe—finally.
Exploring maine: Deepening connection to Portland through Alternative Winter Breaks
Bowdoin brought me to Brunswick, to Little Dog, to Simpson’s Point and afternoons on the Quad. The streets of this small town became familiar and quotidian—the experiences that come with residence. But Bowdoin has also brought me to places much farther from the images in the college brochure. Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Myrtle Beach—away from Maine, but related to my time at Bowdoin nonetheless. Even my semester in Granada, Spain, feels inherently tied to my Bowdoin experience.
Despite having a campus you can walk across in about seven minutes, Bowdoin is a fluid, expanding space. College is tied to the people you meet and the places those people bring you. I’ve taken numerous friends on their first tours around New York City and encouraged classmates to go to the Maine beaches I went to as a child. Places and communities are tangled and those intertwining relationships stretch like tin-can telephones from childhood homes to Gelato Fiasco and the top of Mount Katahdin to all the places we will move after we graduate.
Some of these links mean more than others. Some places will always belong to someone you love. Others will carry the sour taste of a meal made awkward by a friend’s sexist grandpa. But a few of my most important Bowdoin journeys are unforgettable primarily because of what I learned through living, if only briefly, in a brand new place.
I went on Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips my first and second years at Bowdoin. My first year I went to Atlanta, Georgia. and participated in a trip that focused on immigrant detention and the experiences of refugees in Atlanta. My second trip went to the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point, where I have spent time every year at Bowdoin. These trips were undoubtedly formative: not service trips in any typical definition of that term, but rather unique group experiences of learning from individuals and organizations about the issues they face and hopes they have for their own communities.
This past Sunday, 10 women gathered in the McKeen Center common room for the first meeting of the Alternative Winter Break (AWB) trip I am leading with my friend Harriet. Our trip, focused on Reproductive Justice, aims to engage many of the questions that my past ASB groups grappled with. Conversations surrounding privilege, injustice, community engagement, intersectionality and allyship lie at the core of most Alternative Break (AB) trips, regardless of topic or location.
So Harriet and I gathered our trip members together with trepidation and excitement and led them through a name game and discussion. We are clinging to the hope that we will be able to foster a thoughtful and engaged microcosmic community around our trip issue, a community that will be able to bring that thoughtfulness and engagement out of the McKeen Center and into places that are not on a typical holiday destination list. Typical holiday trips are usually with family or close friends—ABs are not, on the surface, about friendship (although friendships will hopefully be formed) but bring students from differing campus spheres into a shared space.
Unlike many of the ASB trips, the AWB participants live on campus and the trips stay in the Midcoast area. Our trip will be visiting the Portland Planned Parenthood, the Maine Trans*Net and the Maine ACLU, among other community partners. Harriet and I have a scripted seminar syllabus, a schedule for our trip and eight wonderful participants—now we’re hoping, through connection to people and connection to issues, to create a new connection to place among our group members.
I am excited for my experience of Portland to expand beyond Otto’s and the Old Port and to spend a week on this campus I know so well with only a few other people, focusing on rarely had conversations about sexual health and safety and access to reproductive care for people of all identities.
Bowdoin has connected me to multitudinous places. This winter, I look forward to the opportunity to reshape my connection to a few of these places—to remember to look a little deeper, and ask a few more questions and try to understand more thoughtfully and holistically the diversity of experiences walking on the streets around me in Midcoast Maine.
Exploring maine: Considering ability and accessibility, on campus and beyond
This Monday morning, I drove 10 minutes from Bowdoin to Thomas Point Beach, armed with a late-season apple I picked at Rocky Ridge Orchard the weekend before. What better way to start the week than scampering down wide wooden stairs, flopping in sand so warm it feels like August, not October and watching the shadows of minnows darting over the ocean floor?
Two Mondays ago was the opening of a photo exhibit about the experiences of Bowdoin students with disabilities. Walking into a packed Lamarche Gallery and seeing my face on the wall was momentarily surreal. Living with what is called an “invisible disability” rarely puts me under the public eye. But living with any type of disability means a constant reevaluating of spaces and places: navigating accessibility.
Everyone moves through space with certain capabilities. I can run down the steps at Thomas Point Beach. I can flop in the sand with the delightful mix of confidence and carelessness that signifies comfort and ease. Some other people can run for exercise or take long plane rides without the relief of Tylenol, which are not options for me. Accessibility is wavelike and mutable; everyone’s specific abilities lead them to find different spaces and places easier or harder to navigate, and what we find accessible can and will change.
Before continuing I want to note that I am privileged to have insurance that covers not only routine doctor’s visits, but also the tens of thousands of dollars worth of medication I take each year. This dependence represents a sometimes forgotten way in which this election will impact so many lives. Trump’s misogyny, homophobia, racism, xenophobia and climate change denial are frightening, and his healthcare policies and extreme ableism represent another enormous potential harm to people with disabilities and chronic conditions. T-2 weeks to Election Day.
My current medication increases my quality of life, but it is also a powerful immunosuppressant, which leaves me vulnerable to the kinds of communicable diseases that flourish when we return from breaks. I am unable to travel through any regions with a possible threat of yellow fever, including 43 countries in South America and Africa. Accessibility can be local and global, personal and communal.
At Bowdoin, we should hold each other accountable for questions of accessibility on all levels. Will every space be accessible for every person? Likely not. Can we thoughtfully utilize places and change spaces to make them navigable to as many people as possible? Yes.
A few years ago, hiking Tumbledown over Fall Break would have been out of the question for me. Perched atop its peak, I saw swathes of red and umber, autumnal hills spilling down to Webb Lake. Tucked by the ascending path, Tumbledown Pond reflected blue sky and yellow trees in a splendor of complementary colors. The memory of scrambling up the rocky, leaf-sprinkled path is a dear reminder that mobility is not a given in my life—my own narrative of accessibility in my connection to places.
It’s easy to assign our own abilities to other people, to overlook that one person may need extra time to read and process work for a group project, while for another person the meeting location might pose a challenge. Having a broader conversation about ability at Bowdoin will also help us understand one another and give students with disabilities space to advocate for themselves and their stories.
But my story is not everyone’s story. Climbing Tumbledown or visiting Thomas Point are very different issues from climbing the stairs to the top floor of a College House. Basic accessibility should not be a privilege, but an individual right—one our community must push itself to reflect upon. As Bowdoin students, we can look out for one another and provide space for community and personal advocacy. We can open the conversation about accessibility and ability and, in doing so, engage more deeply with the personal needs people have for the spaces and places we share.
Exploring maine: Finding fairies at the Cliff Trail
This week I’m writing from my bed (shout out to everyone who’s suffering from the change-of-season plague), where I’ve been embroidering a dishcloth and blowing my nose and trying to keep the two activities separate. Sickness can bring a period of welcome relaxation—a brief lapse in responsibility—but it can also be a cage.
We speak frequently, here, about the Bowdoin bubble and the forces that draw us inward and keep our attention focused on the little everyday Bowdoin issues. That bubble is usually seen negatively—an invisible wall that keeps students from having to engage with what lies on the other side. Like from a sickroom, Bowdoin students can express a desire for escape.
So, we leave campus, sometimes fleeing to Little Dog and sometimes farther. Get in a car and drive down Harpswell Road. Turn left at Schoolhouse Café. Press your nose against the window as you cross over a glinting field of mudflats ringed by faraway pines. Park behind the unromantic Harpswell Town offices and follow the obliging signage to the Cliff Trail. Enter a new world.
Light falls on the loamy pine needles like paint off the tip of a Pollock brush. The forest is rare congruity, all greens and soft browns and the effervescent gold of September sun. The Cliff Trail, one of Harpswell’s most popular destinations, wanders for two and a half miles through the woods, peaking at a lookout over a 150-foot cliff that drops down to the tidal ripples of Long Reach. There are few sounds but the occasional footstep and the determined rustling of aspens, and few smells but the richness of earth and the sweetness of pine.
Where that rich earth forms welcoming hollows and meets with sturdy tree roots, you can find the fairy houses. Constructed by obliging humans of all ages (if we don’t build the fairies homes, where will they live?) from twigs and curling birch bark and detached mosses, the fairy house zones are nurtured by the town under the endowment of a mysterious benefactress named Lindsey Perkins.
Last Sunday, couched in pillows of newly fallen leaves, I helped build a little fairy house, complete with two Adirondack-style chairs in the front, so the fairies could enjoy the patches filtering over their garden. For a few hours, readings and dinner plans and even the terror of Trump were eclipsed by a literal vacation to fairyland.
A change in scenery can shift everything: a day from mediocre to marvelous, a mindset from the past to the future, a relationship from unsure to cemented. And those changes in scenery can be additive. One Bowdoin world can be so much bigger than campus, and at the end of four years it’s likely that no two will look the same. Every mental map exists in endless Venn diagrams of shared nights in Hatch and solo bike rides to Simpson’s Point. In that context, the Bowdoin bubble becomes ever-expanding.
My personal Bowdoin world, infected by strep, is an unwelcome destination right about now, although my roommate did ask if she could see the white spot in my throat. So I’m staying home, staying in place, taking some time to heal and do old-fashioned needlework. But I’m happy to know that the elasticity of my place-based experience has stretched to include a tiny house with a birch bark chimney which may not survive the winter, but which made my week invincible.
Exploring Maine: Find your space
When we applied to Bowdoin, about a third of us wrote about intellectual engagement. Another third, our commitment to the common good. The last group, myself included, wrote about connection to place.
This past Saturday, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning, stumbled out of bed into fleece-lined leggings and fleece-lined flannel and drove with three friends out to Morse Mountain. As we walked down the dirt path and the darkness thinned to a grey morning light filtering through the leaves, it didn’t feel like 6 a.m., but like a moment out of time. Over the white spread of sandy beach, the unpredicted heavy clouds parted right as the sun floated to fullness. We watched tiny birds scampering in the waves, looking for nibbles of food. I swam, and the water was warmer than the air. As we walked back with salted skin, the mosquitoes bit us to distraction and connection to place was palpable. It itched and it tingled, it was tired eyes and exhilaration.
A Morse Mountain sunrise is only one way to understand place (though a way I definitely recommend). Place is an undeniable and essentially unavoidable commonality. All Bowdoin students share the four corners of the quad, the walk to Hannaford and the 4 p.m. winter sunsets. But what makes all Bowdoin students different is the ways they explore, experience, relate and connect to their physical location.
Places absorb negative and positive attributes and hold the collective experiences of all people who have passed through them and taken photos or just taken in the view. Some students avoid Hatch because they find the atmosphere depressingly dreary. Others linger, walking past the Edwards playground, remembering a first kiss. Some students will never step into Baxter Basement, or the Women’s Resource Center; for others, those spaces will become emblematic of their college experience. Some students will return to Bowdoin for every reunion, others will graduate and never look back to Maine.
We talk about safe spaces and unsafe spaces; quiet spaces and party spaces; private spaces and public spaces; spaces that we feel belong to us and spaces that we feel excluded from. Place usually stands for physical location, while space implies our inhabitation or reaction to that place. I want to write about connections to the places we share as Bowdoin students, on campus and in the surrounding Maine area, and how our common places can become very different spaces.
I feel a physical love for Maine’s natural beauty, for the seashore, for the pines and the patterns of birds flying overhead. But that beauty, like Bowdoin and Brunswick, does not exist in a vacuum. Beyond Bowdoin experiences, I want to take the time to learn the story of the places I inhabit as a four-year resident in Maine. History informs the present and places hold history beyond any time limit I could impose as a student or writer.
Bowdoin promises a deep connection to place—where does that promise take us? From Smith Union to Morse Mountain, the places around me have been engaging students and locals alike for years. Now is the time to look around a little more closely, to think twice about the past and to continue exploring what no one can walk away from: the place in which they live.
An untouchable image: finding love and admiration for a confusing body
Sew what?: God in the Modge Podge? Finding creative origins
When I was a kid I used to make little people out of Sculpey Clay— Sculpey babies, Sculpey moms, Sculpey girls with curls like the ones I wanted but couldn’t have. They had names and personalities, and when I left them in the oven for too long and their edges blackened, I would be seriously upset. Playing God was a little too stressful for me, so now I use Sculpey to make beads and earrings.
This week, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about God. Even though I’m curious about what others have to think, I don’t talk about God often. I asked my friends if they believed in God while we were in the Craft Center, listening to Fleetwood Mac and having fun with Modge Podge—a glue, sealer and finish.
God is maybe in the ocean, or in the sky, or in the ground. All around us, a man, a woman, a genderless being, our Savior, our protector. God inspires fear or love—or both. What most people seem to agree on is that God—if they believe in God—is our creator. There are as many creation stories as there are cultures.
Humans are enthralled by creation stories. Evolution, our factual creation story, doesn’t assign an actor, and so I see the idea of God as the original crafter. Every time we make something we are recreating a tiny bit of that original making, in that we are crafting something the way we want it to be—putting it into the world, giving it a purpose.
So maybe my fascination with people making things, crafting things, stems back to the human desire for a creation story. Maybe my thought that crafting is a way of showing love for others, defining one’s selfhood and place and just figuring out a way to not freak out about life because you’re doing something else with your hands has something to do with the comfort that people get from the various creation stories.
People don’t always craft with intention; they’re not always making something in a particular way or for a particular purpose. But I think humans have always liked to believe that we were made in a particular way, for a particular purpose, even if we have no idea why or what for.
I don’t have any answers. I’m not sure I want to have any answers. What I actually believe in, or what my friends hold to be true, is almost less interesting to me than all the possibilities, all the creation stories, all the myths, all the truths.
When I make something—really make something, think about it, invest myself in it, put it into the world—there’s a moment of letting go. All the crazy, intense effort is in the process and the product becomes something that floats, borne by the reactions (or lack thereof) of other people.
Crafting isn’t always so intense or imbued with meaning. For most people, most of the time, it’s a hobby or a way to make someone smile, a distraction from something else.
I didn’t find God in the Modge Podge. But it’s good to ask questions. It’s good to think about the world in a way that I usually ignore. Whether my Sculpey becomes little people or little beads, clay is clay, and I can make of it what I will.
Sew what?: Crafting a space and building a home: a year in Reed House
It was Friday evening in Reed House and a mess of rainbow-colored Walmart odds-and-ends became the backdrop for our last campus-wide of the year. Tablecloths taped to the floor became giant board game squares; paper plates on the walls were the Gumdrop Forest. The basement, of course, was the Molasses Swamp. Over the living-room door, sparkly letters spelled “Candyland.” House members, myself included, ate candy and looked at our work, genuinely delighted with our ramshackle creations.
Reed has maintained a commitment to excellent campus-wide décor throughout the year. From the star-spangled basement created for our “Spacement” party, to the deflated Cinderella balloon from “Fantasyland” that is still in the living room, red tinsel hearts from “Reed my Lips,” and letters that now read “Landycand,” represent our year in campus-wides.
One thing to know about Reed is that it’s a little bit broken. The right-side shower on the second floor has a shockingly high water pressure. The kitchen sink runs warm water. The heater screeches like a banshee and groans like a ghoul. It took me several weeks to learn how to operate the stove—and even when I did learn how to turn it on I could never remember to turn it off.
But one of the most wonderful parts of living in Reed this year has been occupying that very space and making it my home.
The little quirks of the house flood my memories, because I’m letting myself be nostalgic about something that isn’t even over yet. Stress-cleaning the goopy fridge during finals period with a few intrepid friends. Baking cookies and cakes throughout the year (and then almost burning the house down). Drinking warm tap water while standing in the kitchen in pajamas, uniquely and perfectly content in the presence of some of the most delightful people I know.
At the beginning of the year, my roommate and I took on a project of absurdity: we printed out middle-school photos of our housemates, Crayola-d them with names and dates, and turned the kitchen wall into an amorphous birthday calendar. The kitchen also boasts charming posters urging house members to clean up after themselves: “Drop the Beet? Pick it up!,” and the only permanent decorations in the house: an American flag painting, and a string of paper plates that spell Reed House.
We’re out of here in a little over a month. The particular community that I’ve been a part of this year will probably never spend more than a few hours together all in a room together again. I knew when I moved in that my time in Reed, like the posters I hung in the kitchen and the paper plates I taped up during Candyland, would be transitory. We all knew that.
But different house members spent hours throughout the year decorating this house, for parties and just for ourselves. A Reed House crest was designed. Banners were drawn, painted and flown proudly. I laid tablecloths on the floor, knowing well that they would be torn up imminently by dancing feet, because the decoration crew was committed to showing Reed’s true colors.
Living in Reed—noisy, broken, messy Reed—has been the high point of a challenging year.
Knowing that I can finish class or finish my work and go to a place where I feel at home, where there are people I care about and a communal mattress to collapse onto, is an incomparable happiness.
So what of all the goofy crafts my housemates and I have made throughout the year? I think we made them because we claimed this space entirely, and we were proud of it—proud enough to spend hours designing and making things that had no life span at all.
Our house might paint a mural in the basement to join the American flag painting, a present to New Reed but also a reminder that we were here. Even if the house doesn’t get around to it, even if nothing remains to say that I lived here, the relationships built laughing giddily at 2 a.m. in the kitchen, aren’t going anywhere.
We may be done decorating, but the year isn’t over yet. Spring has just begun, the backyard is melting, and Reed House has big plans.
Sew what?: Crafts provide opportunity for cross-cultural bonding
Beatrice Rafferty Elementary School on the Sipayik reservation in Pleasant Point, Maine has an art room, craft corners in the classrooms and the Passamaquoddy Language and Culture classroom, home to beads, dream-catcher rings and crayons that smear rainbows on small hands.
Sipayik is the larger of the two Passamaquoddy tribal reservations in Downeast Maine; Beatrice Rafferty is the only school on the reservation. After kids finish their worksheets in Passamaquoddy class, they grab coloring pages and the crayon dust flies. A droopy-eared pajamaed rabbit is captioned, “Mahtoqehs—rabbit.”
I spent a week on Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in the language classroom of the school, which overlooks the Passamaquoddy Bay. I came home with a stack of drawings and colored pages inches thick—I have “mahtoqehs,” “pesqahsuwehsok—flower,” and images of the traditional Passamaquoddy double curve.
On Friday, we met with Madonna Soctomah, a former tribal representative to the Maine state legislature. She told us about her experiences growing up on the reservation and then about her time in the legislature, where she worked with politicians who knew nothing about her community. On the reservation, she faced poverty. Off it, she faced racism and a government that wanted to erase her language and alter her way of life.
One of my ASB members asked what she thought our group, which traveled to Sipayik ostensibly to help with the issues facing the community, could actually do with our week.
Soctomah told us to absorb everything we possibly could, to listen and to learn, and then to tell other people what we had seen and heard. She also asked us to treat her people as humans.
Working in the classroom—my organized community service project—I met nearly every child who attends Beatrice Rafferty. Five-year olds sat on my lap and thirteen-year olds told me about their crushes. All the while, we colored and drew, heads together, attracted by the quiet spell of craft time.
The two teachers in the classroom told me about their childhoods, opened their library of Passamaquoddy history books, showed me the craft of beading a dream-catcher, and patiently corrected my Passamaquoddy pronunciation. (The Passamaquoddy “s” sounds like an English “z,” “d” like a “b” and “t” like “d”). As children filed in and out, the teachers would quietly tell me whose parents were separated or gone and who had suffered unspeakably in her five, or seven, or twelve years of life.
On my last day in the classroom I cut out dozens of paper flowers—pesqahsuweskil. The teacher gave me green tempera paint, and on the glass doors that framed the bay glittering with chunks of snow and ice, I created an image of spring.
Before I left, the teacher asked me to close my eyes, and she clasped a bracelet around my wrist. She had beaded it in blue and cream and violet. When I expressed how beautiful it was, she laughed, saying that beading was easy, her hobby. She pointed at the paper and paint on the doors and said that my work was something she could not make. We hugged good-bye.
We gave gifts to each other—colored-in mahtoqehs, bracelets, even window decorations—because we connected on a fundamental level, through conversation and crayons. To receive a craft made by someone else—someone you have known for a short time but will never forget—is a tremendous gift.
To share everything that I learned about Passamaquoddy culture, language and life would take endless pages and hours.
Stories of suffering and oppression, stereotypes that evoke a mythologized way of life, can never define people. I cannot define their entire community in words, but I can tape rabbits to my walls—rabbits colored in during craft time by five-year-old kids—and tell college students about my new friends who made them.
Sew what?: Woven baskets remind us of a forgotten Downeast culture
We spent the sun-dappled day collecting trash from the banks of the lake, where water-weeds lounged against mud and rock. With gloved hands bearing Hefty bags we uncovered bottles, plastic bags and a small mattress from the tawny tumble of loam, leaves and pine needles on the peninsula.
Spirits were high as the group of Bowdoin first years, my Pre-O leaders and myself tramped back to our van. After our morning of community service, we were spending our afternoon with Molly, a renowned basket-weaver at the Indian Township reservation of the Passamaquoddy tribe of Downeast Maine.
Molly welcomed us to her back porch overlooking the smooth water and fed us generously. We talked with her and several of her grandchildren about their lives on the reservation. As the sun dipped into the lake, Molly brought out bundles of dried sweet-grass and began to teach us about her craft.
The Passamaquoddy tribe has lived in Downeast Maine for over 12,000 years. Along with the Maliseet, Penobscot, and Micmac tribes, the Passamaquoddy form the Wabanaki people of Maine. The Wabanaki are the “Dawn Land People”—the first nations of the East.
The tribe currently has 3,369 members and two reservations, Indian Township and Pleasant Point. I travelled to the Pleasant Point reservation for my Pre-O trip and then led a new group of first-years to Indian Township last August. In March, I will be returning to Pleasant Point for an Alternative Spring Break trip. If I had gone on a different Pre-O, I doubt I would know that the reservations exist.
The reservations are about a four-hour drive from Brunswick. The tribe holds over 200,000 acres scattered throughout Maine resulting from years of legal battles after the tribe initiated the Maine Indian Land Claims Act in the late 1960s. The land settlement was a fraction of the tribe’s original claims and their legal status within the state remains fraught.
The tribe has been using sweetgrass, which is sacred to the Passamaquoddy and Micmac tribes, to weave baskets for countless generations. Baskets are also woven from strips of ash wood.Sweetgrass grows in the wetlands of the reservation lakes. Dried, it has the color of straw but is malleable and oily. It smells like freshly cut grass and spices. The sweet perfume, mixed with barbecue and pine, intoxicated the air around us.
If the smell fades, a dip in water revitalizes the grass. Molly, who is the president of the Maine Indian Basket Alliance, braids and twists the sweetgrass into patterned, floral creations.Fancy basket making developed in relatively recent history. Traditionally, basket-weaving women worked for their families, crafting baskets for everyday use. As industrialism and capitalism developed in the newly formed United States, Native families struggled to maintain their traditional economy and lifestyle. The fancy basket industry grew when Native artists began selling their crafts to tourists as art, not for everyday use. Molly, who is one of the few professional basket-weavers left in the community, told us how she works on her baskets for weeks or months at a time; her family has a distinctive flower that marks their work.
In Molly’s capable hands, the sweetgrass twisted into smooth ropes. Granddaughter mimicked grandmother, braiding and chattering about her own baskets—she wanted to start making fancy baskets soon. As Molly worked, she told us about her history, the history of her craft, the history of her land—how a white man had tried to steal her property, where she and many of her extended family members live and where she also rents cabins to visitors. Her family fought back.
Molly taught our group how to make the sweetgrass braids that build baskets. We tied the ends of our braids together—small, sweet wreaths. Ours were jagged at the edges, the braided strands crooked, unlike Molly’s that were smooth and round.
We left Molly’s house bearing our first attempts at her craft, scampering as mosquitoes flooded the dusk. Molly showed us her studio-shop on the way out: dozens of beautiful baskets, the braids of sweetgrass bearing centuries of changing culture, tenacity and pride.
We began our day doing community service on the lakeshore, relishing the sunshine and the company. My co-leader and I wanted our first-years to have a good time, to learn something, to see the exquisite Downeast woods and waters and, to experience the communities of Maine’s Native population. Our project, a few hours dedicated to revitalizing the lakeshore, was as much service to our own aims as to the community’s.
Molly’s hands working the sweetgrass told a story that we were still struggling to learn, a history much less relatable to our lives as Bowdoin students.
I keep my little sweetgrass wreath on my windowsill by my desk. Periodically, I dunk it in water, so my room is faintly scented, a delicious—if crudely made—reminder of Indian Township.
Sew what?: Tradition and craft woven into our names
My parents named me Penelope in homage to Homer’s classic epic “The Odyssey.” Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, lauded for her cleverness and loyalty. While Odysseus went off to war for a decade and spent another few years getting into trouble with beautiful goddesses and many-headed monsters, Penelope remained at home in Ithaca, constantly pursued by uncouth men. Famously faithful, Penelope told her suitors that she would only choose a new husband when she finished weaving a great shroud. Every night she would unravel her day’s work.
The meaning of her name embodies her craft: in Ancient Greek, “pene” means weft (the thread that is drawn through a loom to create cloth) and “ops” means face or eye. Combined, the syllables imply her cunningness and skill at the loom. In modern etymology “Penelope” is translated more directly to “weaver.”
Identifying people by their crafts or trades is common practice, particularly in English surnames: there are Bakers, Smiths and Fishers—all male trades and names passed down through paternal lineage. Similarly, Penelope carries her own craft in her name—the craft that represents her cleverness, skill and loyalty.
Names are our ultimate and original identifiers, and women have historically given theirs up to assimilate into their husband’s family. By wearing her craft as her name, Penelope is identified by her own work, not her husband’s, contradicting the Ancient Greek view of women as objects. That Penelope should be named after not only her craft but also her cleverness is emblematic of her strength as a woman.
Painter or sculptor, knitter, quilter, baker or writer—the things people create can act as powerful identifiers.
These days, most people are not named after their crafts. Not very many Smiths actually spend their days at the fires of the forge.
Though I am a Penelope, I have never woven anything fancier than rainbow potholders from those (very fun) loom kits for kids. But I do make other things—mostly peculiar yarn creations, invented baked goods and birthday cards.
Knitting overlong scarves does not define my identity in the same way that other creative outputs do. Writing English papers and short stories or planning activities to do with my mentee at Brunswick high school—these things appear on my résumés, building an image of me for the world. Outside of the crafting marketplace, knitting is not a desired skill. Neither is weaving potholders.
But they bring me a very particular fulfillment. The process of crafting—knitting, sewing, weaving, dyeing—requires purpose and concentration from start to finish. Everything I craft is my idea, my vision. There is a nirvana in counting stitches, matching fabrics and pondering colors that carries through to the satisfaction of finishing something—unlike the agony of writing a paper which leads to the final manic burst of happiness and relief when it is handed in.
So I carry my crafts, not in my name but in my mind and my hands. I knit through house meetings, paint for my friends and patch my jeans when I fall on my knees. The peaceful process of crafting, the pleasure at finishing something—even if I don’t particularly like it—culminates in the sense of self that comes with knowing that I may not be marketable, but I can still create and express myself through those creations. That’s a way of being that I want to hold on to.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the alternative etymology of Penelope relates to the Greek word “penelops,” which means “duck.” I like ducks, from afar, and it’s good to remember that even the most gifted of people can still be birdbrains. But when people ask me what “Penelope” means—I usually stick to “weaver.”
Penelope Lusk is a member of the Class of 2017
Sew what?: Function follows form: the art of crafts
Art has existed for thousands of years, but our definitions of and uses for art have changed over time. This is the first in a series of pieces that will explore the perception and use of art and crafts throughout history, as well as their place and relevance in the modern world.
Around 1.76 million years ago, early humans created the first hand-axe by striking the edges of stones into flat, pointed shapes. Fast-forward to 40,000 years ago—almost nothing on the evolutionary timeline—and humans wrought five-note flutes from mammoth tusks. Thirty-thousand years ago, bone needles stitched clothing from rough hides and skins. And over the next 15,000 years, humans developed all major forms of art, using pigments, stones, animal parts and clay to paint, draw, sculpt, engrave and make music.Two years ago when I got into Bowdoin, my mother began sewing me a quilt. She chose a pattern (repeating Xs and Os). She selected favorite, familiar scraps from her rag bag—flowers, pinks, greens and oranges. She cut, pieced, pinned, sewed, batted, backed and finally machine-stitched smooth whorls through the layers of fabric.
When I moved into Maine Hall, she told me that if I didn’t want to keep it on my bed—if I thought it was embarrassing that my mother made me a quilt, or if I didn’t like the pattern—I could put it right in storage. I kept the quilt.
My mother’s quilt falls into the legacy of millions of years of human creations. Quilts and quilt patterns are prominent in American history. Generations of frontier women taught their daughters the useful arts of quilt -making, knitting, lace-making, weaving, spinning and dyeing, which all developed alongside human civilization as homo sapiens moved indoors. Long after the needle was invented, the domestic arts were born.
Tools made for pure necessity began a tradition of human creation to memorialize culture and to demonstrate love. From the bone needles that brought life-saving warmth in furs and hides were born the silver needles that stitched African visual traditions into slave quilts; one of those silver needles latched into the sewing machine that my mother keeps by the big window in our home studio.
The earliest examples of pigmented stone, crude flutes, and even simple needles and axe-heads are treasures because they document the origins of humans’ creative expression, the very beginning of humans’ unique desire to expose their souls through a particular medium.
Modern forms of creative expression are innumerable—digital arts, writing, performances, 100 iTunes music genres, and the vestiges of the once-necessary domestic arts.
Today, the domestic arts are likely the least respected, least popular form of creative expression, but perhaps the most used art form for demonstrating love. To make a person an item to wear, to use—a scarf or a dress or a blanket—in an era when Walmart and Amazon bring commodities cheaply to our fingertips, is an ultimate labor of love.
Unlike fine arts, which are not purchasable in the same way a quilt is purchasable, crafts turn creative expression into a form of love, for the self, for someone else, for the very act of sewing, knitting, or weaving. New to our time is the qualifying statement when the quilt is finished—you don’t have to keep it if you don’t want to.
My mother told me I didn’t have to keep the quilt she made me, that I didn’t have to use the quilt, and so I wonder: when did homemade quilts become embarrassing, instead of precious? How did acts of creative expression—from weaving to sculpting—that have been part of human history for legions of time shift from ways of recording stories, of celebrating tradition, of exploring the beauty of the world, to the trope of the starving artist?
In the pieces that follow in this column I hope to explore what we can learn from considering the breadth, depth and width of human expression through creative arts—in history and in modernity. I will also address the significance of making things—for ourselves and for other people—and what that does for self-image, personal growth and the growth of societies.
Humans make things. We make useful things, pretty things and superfluous things. Things for each other, for ourselves, for pets, for the dead. Forty-thousand years from now, when archaeologists uncover our civilizations, what will their findings tell them?
-Penelope Lusk is a member of the Class of 2017