Talk of the Quad: The broken container
Last year, I was in Paris during the terrorist attacks, and I don’t know how to tell that story. Similarly, I don’t know how to tell the story about Trump’s recent election. But there seems to be a strange and shivering thread between the two events. Both violent, painful, chaotic. Yet Paris was somewhat contained. This election is not—the common mantra being, “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
We tell stories to make meaning of trauma—to contain pain so we can better examine it and give it value. But sometimes we are in such distress that the container cracks. We can no longer write or speak in the same way, we can no longer contain the pain or carry it comfortably.
Paris: the cherry glow of sirens, the bitter cold, windows slamming shut, a vacant Eiffel Tower. Alternatively: my friend who calmly held my hand, the family member who made a quiche, a café filled with people drinking champagne the next day.
Either it becomes a story of horror and fear, which you’ve already heard, or a story of healing and bravery, which feels mawkish and insincere.
I think we dislike narratives which exist in gray, uncertain space. We want them to have logic, to land on one side of a binary—tragedy or comedy, conflict resolved or broken open, a character whose biggest desire is fulfilled or wrenched from them completely. Climax, falling action, resolution.
But trauma, especially when it first occurs, isn’t a neat and tidy narrative. Sometimes there is no narrative at all.
The New Yorker recently featured a piece in which 16 writers weighed in on the election. As my friend Marie Scarles observed, “There are so many different versions of why Trump won, and so many ways for us to imagine the future. Should we pay more attention to poor whites? To Muslims? To women? To LGBTQ? To racists? To immigrants? All seem urgent, but none can be held as the be-all-end-all.”
We are searching for a straightforward answer, an immediate ending so this can be over and done with.
After the election, hunched over my carrel in H-L and unable to write, I got a text message from my father: “Trauma turns us into animals, which means story-telling turns off. We revert to fight, flight or shock.” But sometimes, maybe our storytelling tendencies shutting down is a good thing. Maybe it allows us to survive. Narratives can be healing, but they can also be dangerous.
By attending to many different perspectives, perhaps a new story will eventually arise, something both nuanced and messy, something which contains many strands. Perhaps it will be a story of hope but a particular kind of hope, which Rebecca Solnit describes as “an ax you break down doors with in an emergency … [it] should shove you out the door.”
For now, we are living in uncertainty. The story is that there is no story—at least no singular one—which means there is no singular conflict, no one resolution. I wish I had a coherent story to tell about Paris, but I don’t. For me, the container is still broken open, as it is now for America post-election. This means we must listen to each other, and listen carefully.
Raisa Tolchinsky is a member of the Class of 2017.
Talk of the Quad: The sweet, the bitter and the wise
For a long time, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be happy. This seemed like a distant and shimmering answer and something people couldn’t question. If I said I wanted to be a writer, people would ask me, rapid fire: “What kind of writing?” “Do you want to go to grad school?” “That’s nice, but I meant what are you going to do for money?” Saying I wanted to be happy could mean writing or it could mean a white picket fence in the suburbs or traveling the world or eating granola in my bed. Whatever was underneath “happy,” it remained mine, and no one could question it.
This year I am studying in Italy. It’s been a whirlwind of churches, fruit stands and little old women dressed to the nines. I’ve lit a paper lantern and let it go across the Adriatic Sea. I’ve been invited in for coffee by a nun. I’ve walked through the underground city of Naples.
I was also in Paris during the terrorist attacks. I got bed bugs in Rome. I went through a breakup. I do not mean to present the highs and the lows as a balanced equation. (I am well aware it would be a very, very privileged equation.) I mean only to point to a few moments to say I have experienced extremes.
A year ago in the Bowdoin Orient, I wrote, “I have conquered an eating disorder.” What I meant was that I didn’t use the margins of my notebooks to tally calories anymore. I could live with myself on the days I didn’t run six miles. I could eat an entire slice of cake on my birthday without wincing.
What I should have said was: “I conquered an eating disorder once.
After Paris, I was anxious all the time. I ate cartons of cereal instead of actually feeling sad. When I went grocery shopping, I bounced back and forth between milk brands and brightly stacked vegetables, disoriented, as if on a scavenger hunt without any clues. In between all of this, I was drinking espresso in Venice, watching sunsets and coasting through the hills of Bologna on a Vespa.
I had little to no patience with myself—if I wasn’t happy now, in Italy, when would I be? How could I be refacing an eating disorder when I had so many days here where I was not just happy but ecstatic and overcome with gratitude?
You’d think refacing something means that it would be a little easier to look in the eye. But this version of an eating disorder is different from the one I experienced at 16. It is both deeply familiar and also completely foreign. I have had to relearn it. I have had to carve a new space.
Shame is what pulls you under. When my mom came to visit me in Italy, I said that I’m still struggling. Sometimes I’m scared. It was strange to be having this conversation in a hotel in Italy, a better version of the conversation we’d had four years ago in our living room in Chicago.
At the end of it, my mother said, “I just want you to be happy.” The sentiment was beautiful! Who doesn’t want to be happy? Who doesn’t want their parents to want that for them? For the record, my mother is incredible. But I was mad as hell. There is something unsatisfying and hollow about the word happiness. It’s impossible to pin down. It doesn’t capture much.
And yet, a big part of me wanted to say, “But I am happy.” It wasn’t a lie. Overall, I didn’t not feel happy, even while during the conversation, I was crying and my face was covered in snot.My mother wasn’t wrong in perhaps referencing the fact that I didn’t seem at peace. But why did I feel shame in admitting that things were sometimes not so easy? Why was it so hard to admit that yes, I wasn’t always happy?
I think we are taught that happy means good and sad means bad. Yet “satisfaction” comes from the same Indo-European root that gives us "sad." Disorder, of whatever type, can coexist with “goodness,” and illness can coexist with health. Maybe some difficult things never go away, but we can learn how to re-greet them, to pay attention, to maybe be a little bit more compassionate towards ourselves. Contradictions don’t equate to lies or hypocrisies. We can be kickass students, amazing friends, artists, athletes and partners, and within the context of being those things, we can struggle with what is painful, dark and difficult.
As the Italians say, Non ha il dolce a caro, chi provato non ha l'amaro. To taste the sweet, sometimes you must try the bitter. Meaning, you can have moments of light in a year of suffering or moments of suffering in a year of light. You can wake up in Italy or Spain or Senegal or Brunswick (or wherever you are) and see something painful rise within you, something you thought you left behind many places ago. Hardship, in however it manifests, can be a part of well-being and often is a crucial part.
We can be in awe of the world around us (and be active participants) while also deeply in pain. Bearing witness to ourselves and all of our contradictions, learning to greet (often more than once) our struggles with patience and allowing room for discomfort or grief are, sometimes, a lot of work. A lot of hard work and often excruciatingly difficult. But it is worthwhile and important and worth stopping in the midst of our very busy lives to make space for and observe.
Long ago, in the Welsh language, the word “happy” first meant “wise.”
Raisa Tolchinsky is a member of the class of 2017.
Talk of the Quad: My extracurricular is nothing
At the first affiliate event we hosted at Burnett House, a few first years asked me, “What do you do here?” They did not ask, “What is your favorite meal? Who are your friends? What classes do you like? How do you survive the workload?” They also did not ask, “Are you happy? Have you found love? Have you found yourself?”
I was struck by this question because I was at a real loss for how to answer it. We were standing in a small circle, one of many small circles at the party, holding cups filled with cider and eating a lot of cheese. There’s something about a small circle of people that makes it easy to forget you don’t know anybody in it. After all, we have been practicing standing and sitting in circles since pre-school.
Two of my best friends were standing on either side of me. They answered orchestra and a women's discussion group, Student government and organic gardening, Peer Health and outdoor leadership.
“Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in any of these,” they said to the first years. Their lists probably could have gone on, but these were their main activities. These two friends of mine are bright eyed and beautiful and funny and smart. They are musical and mathematical and read entire books in one morning.
Upon hearing their lists, the first years looked energized instead of intimidated. So many options, so many ways to get involved. It was just what was promised in the college brochure.
I had no idea what to say. I could not answer with a list. I wanted to say, “Sometimes I watch cooking tutorials on YouTube. I fill up journals and can’t read my own writing. I struggle to finish all my essays and readings and take-home exams. Sometimes I call my mom and talk for forty-five minutes.”
What do I do at college? I spend hours lying on the Ikea rug in my room on the third floor of an old house listening to Patsy Cline.
What else? Well, I’m in love with someone 3,000 miles away, and loving someone takes more energy than any extracurricular I’ve ever done. Sometimes I unroll my yoga mat. When I feel sick with worry, I walk to the next town over. I get coffee and let people rant to me about the things that hurt. Often, I bake bread and it goes horribly, horribly wrong. I’m not the head of an organization, but I have conquered an eating disorder.
If there’s anything I’ve done here, it’s learn that it is so much harder to slow down than to speed up.
So here’s to doing nothing. To the quiet moments. To the days you sit within yourself and just watch. To soft music, handwritten words, silence. To listening to the way snow sounds underfoot. To watching dusk and dawn come and go.
We should be proud of the moments we do not try to fill. Not that activities and extracurriculars and essays aren’t tremendous and important. But sometimes I want to gather the busy students, the ones with crunched faces and big backpacks, and say, “Shh. It will all be okay. Let yourself settle. Enjoy the nothingness." There will be times in our lives when the car breaks down, when the children are crying—times that will be much noisier and certainly more difficult than college. And even then, we must commit to the moments of nothing, the moments of sheer, simple joy. Eating a perfectly fried egg. Opening an untouched notebook.
Doing nothing does not mean failure. Pausing does not mean stopping. We are stirring up the dust by learning so much, and we must create a space for that dust to settle.
We are all superheroes with an Achilles heel: We are afraid to stop moving, afraid that if we for one second return to our introverted Peter Parker/Clark Kent selves, the world will be too far gone to save. But the reality is, it won’t. After all, it does take some time to figure out what our powers are in the first place.
Raisa Tolchinsky is a member of the Class of 2017.
Eggert awarded Maine Art Commission Fellowship
Assistant Professor of Art Alicia Eggert recently received the Maine Art’s Commission 2014 Visual Arts Fellowship. This $13,000 award is the Commision’s largest unrestricted grant, awarded based on artistic excellence and merit.
Eggert has been on sabbatical this semester, and just completed a two-month artist residency in New York City through Sculpture Space.
The Maine Arts Commission, whose mission is to “encourage and stimulate public interest and cultural heritage of the state and assist freedom of public expression,” hosts an open round of applications for this fellowship, with different categories in including visual arts and performing/media arts.
Portrait of an artist: Gibson Hartley '16
For sophomore Gibson Hartley, music is not just a hobby, but an ongoing conversation. Though he started playing saxophone in fourth grade, he didn’t start taking it seriously until he arrived at Bowdoin and began taking lessons with Frank Mauceri, the director of his jazz band. This year, he formed a quartet with friends Molly Ridley ’14, Simon Moushabeck ’16 and Sam Eley ’15.
In addition to playing the saxophone, he composes music and sings baritone in The Longfellows. Because there are so few senior members, Hartley and a fellow sophomore have taken on the leadership of the group.
“It’s rewarding to work with the younger members and an amazing feeling to arrange a piece and have a group sing it back to you,” he said.
Visiting artist interprets nature into art
Erling Sjovold, painter and associate professor of art at the University of Richmond, was an artist-in-residence at Bowdoin during the month of October. Sjovold set up a contemporary studio in the Edwards Center for Arts and Dance, and worked on some paintings that he started during another artist residency in Iceland this summer.
Though Sjovold was passionate about drawing and painting from a young age, he was also interested in the natural sciences. He remembers seeing the wolverines at the San Diego Zoo, and was captivated by their ferocity and the larger complexity of the animal world.
Although he sees himself as a curious naturalist, he is also interested in exploring the relationship between the wonder and curiosity in art.
A cappella council: An unheard force
Every year, prospective singers come with a “brief solo and a smile” to audition for one or more of Bowdoin’s six a cappella groups. Most students know about the three main a cappella events—the recruitment concert in the fall and the winter and spring concerts at the end of each semester—yet few know of the A Cappella Council, the organizing body behind the scenes.
Their anonymity isn’t puzzling to Noah Gavil, chair of the Council and member of co-ed group Ursus Verses.
“It is not a public entity, but more of an organized group that is a vehicle of communication which helps with the logistics on campus,” he said.