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Where We Live

I’ve made some transitions recently: from a large space to a small one, from having a car to living without one, from living in a place with divisions to living without them. These are some observations I’ve made.

There’s no ‘off-campus’ for me, anymore. Before, I would go home and say goodbye to school for a few hours; as long as I wanted to I could take a mental vacation. Now I can see the library from my room. I thought these constant reminders of being a student would teach me to study, constantly, but it doesn’t work like that. The sight of so many students around the clock, all the time, has hardened me to it. Now I draw lines between ‘school’ and ‘fun’ and it’s almost as easy to spin off  a few hours, doing nothing, as it was before. I say ‘almost’ because I do think I do get a little bit more studying done, but the effect is small, nothing sensational.

It’s kind of like being a New Yorker. I mentally block the presence of other people as I’m walking around, because if I really stopped and thought about each of them as individual human beings, I’d be overwhelmed. It goes both ways; I’m becoming used to not being ‘presentable’ because trying to dress up and look put together becomes too much when the time that other people can see fills the whole day.

It’s all made me think of the ways that I built my life before. Typically, there was a ‘work’ part and then a ‘free’ time, at night; the ‘free’ time was very different than the ‘work’ time, almost like taking a train into a different country. At night the days slows down and keeps slowing down until it finally stops, with sleep. On campus, there’s a sense that nothing ever stops; people are studying at all hours of the day and it’s easy to walk out the door, enter the library, and see people studying in the same way they were at the moment I fell asleep. It’s harder to form boundaries that naturally happen on their own, off campus – there is no actual ‘down time’ here, that’s not self-created. It’s disorienting, like being in a car that never slows down or stops for you to get out and walk around.

The best part is how walkable everything is. I’ve noticed that the minimum time to make the mental transition from one ‘place’ to another is 10 minutes; anything less than that feels like I’m still in an extension of my room, still in home mode. At the 10 minute mark, it ‘feels’ new, psychologically. Also, it’s a little funny how my attachment to my car (which was pretty strong, before – that Honda was a part of me) has switched to my bicycle, pretty much effortlessly. I feel a little joy when I unlock it and feel protective when I lock it; in fact I feel the same amount of emotion for both the car and the bike, I would say, even though the bike isn’t worth 1/1000 as much the car. I like I have only have one setting for my feelings about my stuff; they all get the same amount of it.

I thought that, by moving into a smaller space and ditching a lot of my possessions, I’d become less attached to them. That didn’t happen; I just transferred those attachments to a smaller set of items. It doesn’t take much to become attached to something; you buy it, you use it a few times, and from then on you associate yourself with it. The lanyard I wear around my neck, for instance, has started to feel like my treasure. I know it’s dumb but it feels true when I’m walking around.

Finally, I’ve heard people say that being able to walk to places is the best way to give you a sense of place. With a car it’s easy to route around damage and live in a kind of imaginary space – your house + the gym + 2 bars + 3 restaurants – where none of which relate to each other, except in your head. If part of the city sinks into the sea, it’s easy to not care, by just crossing it off the list and replacing it with some other, mostly identical places. Here, I’m very aware of how all of these locations are part of the same place; plunking down a hotel and a parking lot on one end would change it. I have a vested interest that I didn’t have before; on a personal level I care. It’s one thing to read about it but another to experience it.


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