After Abroad: Leaving, Returning and Staying Put

When I think about the sometimes-beautiful intersections between settling down and disappointment, Middlemarch by George Eliot comes to mind. It was the first book I read for an English class at Amherst, and it has so much to say about time because it spans many years of a life in a town. The narrator often makes observations about time and describes how the characters observe their own lives and their own time. “For a while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective,” Eliot writes. “What could she do…?”

In my freshman fall, I got frustrated with a happy-go-lucky acquaintance at a table in Valentine because when I said how nothing was exciting me at Amherst, they said my perspective or my lack of effort was the problem. That bothered me, because there was truth to it, and also because I was at a point in my life where it was hard to believe I could make myself happy with the wave of a wand. I’m kind of alarmed that after spending about seven months away from Amherst, I already feel a dread similar to the one I felt in December 2014. However, instead of this boredom being tied to a lack of self-worth and a constant sadness about a dead love life, as it was then, I think my problem now is an apathy that masks a reluctant, lingering unease I have about the same old things at Amherst. I sometimes felt yogic about the distance from my worries when I was travelling around Argentina. I was working through a particularly bad bout of anxiety before I left over the summer, when I had too much time to think too far ahead about all sorts of things that are irrelevant now, but now I lack a rudder guiding me to seek anything at all. This lull is kind of lovely, but why, then, does everything seem so bleak? Or, if not bleak, then lacking in excitement. It’s a feeling many of my junior friends have expressed and a state that seems self-indulgent when some of us live in a bubble of safety in this violent moment.

It feels silly and redundant to comment on Amherst’s size, and it feels pretentious to echo, “Oh! How I miss study abroad! It was so cosmopolitan! Amherst is so blasé!” I guess returning and undergoing an “adjustment period” — whatever that is — shows me how concrete my life can be here. Being a junior and returning to Amherst in the middle of the year, I see most clearly what strikes me as traditional to this environment. L.L. Bean boots squeaking, walking in circles around the same floor on Frost to try and find a place to sit according to my mood, browsing the Val menu for the next two weeks and forming visceral opinions we have about other people that we can bolster with our politics. Then, there are other times I am literally doing something new — spending Saturdays in the Zu or Greenway instead of Pond or Crossett, avoiding Jenkins now instead of avoiding Stone, and I still feel jaded. I think what’s stranger is leaving and finding everything just where you left it, but not, especially with certain emotional vacancies. I live in Marsh again, in a beautiful, bigger room with a cute fake fireplace and its own bathroom, which is wonderful and oddly isolating. Some of my friends are abroad, some have graduated and some are not in my life anymore. Unconsciously, I residually and anxiously care about stupid things and look back on how I thought, and bitterly wish I had been more guarded.

I am unsettled being temporarily settled, and I know a part of that is my usual neurotic emotional rollercoaster, but maybe it’s the certainty of Amherst when all other aspects of my life are so uncertain. I grew so comfortable with moving around abroad, dizzy and floating, that the slightly downward-sloping flat line here surprises me. Returning from a place where I missed my friends so much that life seemed pointless, I expected constant company and comfort on campus. I still find myself feeling alone, most glaringly and elderly on some Friday nights when I’ve stayed in and watched movies for my Holocaust Literature class while embroidering.

On a hike in Argentina, my friend said that sometimes you need to travel to remember that you can be interesting. Crying on a sidewalk and being passionate in a more uninhibited way feels cooler than crying in Frost. It’s easier to perk up about The New York Times alerts about more things in the the U.S. going to shit when it’s summer in Buenos Aires, and bright purple flowers are blooming in the park. And it’s easier to find comfort from briefly chatting with a stranger when you constantly feel foreign.

I’ve largely given up on expecting to draw out meaning, given up on being entirely at peace and, fortunately, given up on the depression-induced belief that all my life and all my most significant passing relationships are temporary and going to end terribly. I think I’m terrified of trying to just be happy and do whatever the fuck I want, because in the past, I’ve had such clear pursuits: Finding Myself and Trying to Like Myself — realizing that was impossible, Looking for Love — risky and confusing and exhausting and painful but also great, and now I Don’t Know — and I’m potentially okay with that, too.
Time is weird, and I’m starting to see how weird it is to view things as a hop from one major event to the next. Time was stranger and more fluid last semester. The time I wasted thinking about things that were kind of a waste. The valuable time-wastes I spent looking at memes on Instagram. The times I waited on Buenos Aires’ erratic bus schedule.

Recently, I disagreed with a student at a career center workshop who said he wanted to “be married by 27” because I want to believe things just happen when they happen. I am comfortable with ambiguity because I have seen too clearly what happens when I am not. Yet, in deciding to make things fluid, I wonder if I’m leaving everything up to the other people in my life or the shy underachiever within me. I think about aging, and I think about compromising, in the diplomatic sense — ideology, dreams and my life steadily cooling. I guess in that sense, life gets easier, yet it doesn’t at all. I used to wish I could fall asleep until I was 30 because I was so afraid of losing people and not knowing who would be there, but now I’m afraid of viewing people like investments. My dad constantly reminds me to suck the marrow out of my life right now because college is a special time, but he also tells me I have this belief that at some point the worries will evaporate into peace, and that that’s just wrong. That sounds bleak, but there must be some nice rhythm to moving in and out of bleakness.