When I arrived at Princeton, the first item to adorn my dorm room was a 16x20 print of my baby cousin — on a playground swing set for the first time, her face awash with sunlight and a kind of unadulterated glee. THIS IS WHAT THE LIVING DO spans the top of the image. It’s in all caps, impossible to miss. I took this caption from one of my favorite lines from Marie Howe's eponymous poem, turning it into my own personal maxim.
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I grew up in a small suburb west of Boston where forests predominated and the nearest strip mall was fifty minutes away. Due in part to this insularity and in part to my own decisions, high school calcified into a routine of classes, fleeting social interactions and extracurriculars which left me with little time to do anything “off-the-cuff.” It was as if, no matter how hard I paddled, I could only swim in place.
The beginning of college presented a unique opportunity to remake myself into someone less rigid, more spontaneous, someone who’d never let any opportunity pass her by. And yet, despite this eagerness for a fresh start, my dorm room filled, almost inadvertently, with artifacts of nostalgia. There was an Oh! My God! I Miss You poster and a constellation of photos I’d brought from home. By the end of move-in day, I’d plastered over the bare white walls with images of Taipei Harbor at dawn, the Eiffel Tower at dusk, Midtown Manhattan in a holiday haze, and my hometown, my hometown filtered through the glow of evening light, all dappled trees and winding country roads.
This tension between freedom and familiarity became even more apparent during frosh week. I found myself torn between the kind of activities I’d gravitated toward in high school and those I’d always wanted to but had never had a chance to explore. Instead of choosing, I signed up for them all. Ping pong, mixed martial arts, publications, even training for a crisis hotline. Each day I tried to do something different, attend another show or arch sing, fill every moment with something—anything. The truth was that I dreaded the establishment of a routine. Worried that routine meant stagnancy, a lapse back into my former rigidity and isolation...loneliness.
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It’s been nearly three weeks since classes started. Already, I’ve started heading to Firestone in the evenings and Murray-Dodge at night. In a few weeks, the student organizations to which I belong and the gorgeous Gothic buildings around campus will have lost the sheen of novelty.
There’s a line in Marie Howe's poem that goes before the one I used for my poster caption: “For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking/I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do.” I’d always regarded Howe’s beautification of the mundane with a certain awe, even disbelief, but I think I understand now. The unexpected is exhilarating, but the expected doesn’t have to be restricting unless you make it so. There’s something enchanting about walking along a path you’ve walked countless times before, pausing to take a picture or two, falling in love all over again.
So this is what the living do. To live is to find the sublime in the ordinary. To live is to approach every day as if it were your first — as if move-in day had just commenced, and the orange carts were still scattered around campus, and you were still weeks from realizing that it’s happened, this is it, you’re home.