Sometimes, I wish I were a squirrel. It was a gray morning, and I stood in front of a tree near Angell Hall, where a tawny, overweight squirrel sat on a skinny branch of a skinny tree. It did not even look at me; I was not offended. As I stood and watched, another impossibly large squirrel bounded across the nearly melted snow to the foot of the tree, stopping to lick its paws before climbing onto the same branch to meet its hefty friend. I could not believe it. For a moment, I debated whether this tree could magically hold my weight, too, before I dismissed the ridiculous idea.
The following day, the squirrels would not stay out of my mind — or my sight. They were everywhere — climbing telephone poles, eating slices of pizza on the Diag, monitoring the entrances of Hatcher. Squirrels seemed to be sprouting from the grass like daisies. This is Ann Arbor, I had to remind myself; squirrels are omnipresent. While every day I know there are hundreds of squirrels taking over campus, before that day, I had not attempted to notice every one. Before that day, when I did see a squirrel, I never slowed my speed-walk to class to acquaint myself.
While I may sound childish, it’s how I often feel on campus. Between classes, I repeatedly find myself frozen after I turn the corner near the Chemistry building and enter the Diag. Silently, I whisper, “Who are all you people?!” Because though I walk among thousands of people, how many people do I recognize? Out of all of those I’ve encountered in classes and meetings and hallways, how many names can I actually recite? Not that there is going to be a quiz or anything, but is this not a bit frustrating?
While it has never been proven, I once read that our minds cannot create new faces, so the people in our dreams are people we have come across before, even if we do not register them. While I do not know if this is true, it is a provocative idea, one I am not sure I want to comprehend. I try to picture thousands of faces I do not remember seeing — enough to fill the Big House full of people. Faces I do not recognize, but still are kept on file in my brain, making appearances as I sleep. I don’t know how to feel about this. It seems kind of creepy, having so many strangers occupy my brain and knowing I must take up a space, however miniscule, in the minds of others. But more than that, I have this guilt sitting on my chest.
How did I let myself miss so many opportunities to meet so many undoubtedly wonderful and interesting people? When I overthink, emotion often ignores fact — there will always be, certainly, people I pass by without ever knowing. That is just how life works in our fast, dense society. But there are faces for which I had many chances to learn their corresponding names — but choked — something that happens too often in social opportunities. Remember Backpack Music Guy? Last year, he lived on the Hill, like I did. He had become a favorite conversation piece among my friends and me. Over dinner, we would share we had heard Johnny Cash playing from his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles backpack, how it made our morning a bit brighter. How did I never approach Backpack Music Guy as ABBA played from his backpack? Not even just to ask his real name?
I tell myself I am going to do better, that I will be more open, that I will rush less. At the time, I believe what I say.
When I said that sometimes I wish I were a squirrel, it was because, without any real knowledge on the matter, in my mind, squirrels do not obsess over this kind of thing. They do not worry about who they know or who they should know or who exists in the world. Me — I am not a squirrel. But I wish I could know one.
Payton Luokkala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.