How We Changed & How We Didn’t

A little over a year ago, Mark Vanhoenacker ’96 gave a reading at Amherst Books from “Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot.” At the event, someone remarked on the ways in which Vanhoenacker’s writing reawakens his readers to the wonder of flight. He allows us to reoccupy the space of a child who boards a plane for the first time and watches, wide-eyed, as the landscape drifts away below. In our “grown-up” world, flight has become overly normalized (for a privileged segment of the population). It is easy to forget to look out the window and remark on just how small buildings look. It is difficult to remember or internalize just how quickly we are able to move from point A to point B. Upon pointed reflection, it can become disorienting to realize how far one has traveled in a day. That disorientation begs investigation.

However we traveled to return to Amherst, we all covered immense distance to arrive. “Distance” is not determined in miles, but in the mental space and dissonance between an old home and a new one. In our rush (or reluctance) to return to this place, it can be easy to forget about the scale of this mental distance that we travel every year. We sit in cars or on planes and think about what comes ahead in the semester, or ruminate on the people we left behind. Like on an airplane, we are stuck at the departure gate or the destination, often forgetting to look at what lies outside the window, in the space in between. Looking ahead or behind holds value, but the Editorial Board believes it is also important to reflect and live within the stretched feeling of leaving one place and entering another.

Once we arrive here, it sometimes feel easier just to live in our Amherst world. It is often hard to know when and how to introduce stories from our “outside” life, at least beyond the surface details. Only with our close friends might we delve into more detailed versions of our stories. However, even in more intimate exchanges, we are still living and telling the story in an Amherst space, and quite possibly speaking as a person/persona distinct from the person/persona that might have experienced the story in the first place. All this is to say that we present ourselves in different ways across different spaces. We tell stories about ourselves in different ways, depending on the person across from us. There is not anything particularly negative or positive about this claim, but it is important to acknowledge the fact of it in acknowledging our mix of personalities, we might see ourselves better. Especially in moments when telling old stories in new locations, we can and should observe ourselves — in doing so, we might see what changes and what stays the same. The content of a story will stay the same (there is no room for “alternative facts” in our personal lives), but perhaps the tenor of our voices will change. In identifying such small, but critical changes, we occupy this “stretched-ness” of our being.

After a bit of healthy, self-conscious reflection, it is actually quite reassuring to see how much we change across spaces. It expands the potential of presentation. We can bring our bodies to each conversation slightly differently — it makes sense that we adjust ourselves to others. It shows a willingness to participate in a conversation that is at least two-sided. In being different for different people, acknowledging their difference, we accept that their difference might actually change us in some way. And yet there is some sort of consistency to the fact that we change and perform across spaces. However different we might feel at Amherst, or in any other place, with any other people, there’s a conservation of personhood deep below. Taking the time to consider the newness of ourselves, and the newness of this semester, we can find comfort in the fact that we are building upon a pre-existing foundation of our deep souls.