What feels like home to one person has no impact on another. While exploring the Ohio State campus with my friend from home last weekend, I felt nothing but a longing for the University of Michigan campus — the campus I interpret as “better.” One could infinitely debate the benefits of the Ohio Union compared to those of the Michigan League, but there is no real conclusion in arguing over which facility is superior: we would remain devoted to our respective campuses.
Where we are affects who we are, and I think that the personal growth we experience in college intrinsically links itself to the place, the neighborhood, the dorm, the street we call home, even if only for four years. It’s possible that spending arguably the most pivotal time of our lives in one concentrated dreamscape makes way for a superior connection, unlike any other, not only to the people we meet, but the specific places in which we find ourselves feeling so deeply.
I have cried and laughed and broken down and worried and smiled all within the twenty-something square mileage of Ann Arbor. It’s a place of constant change and deep emotion: I have felt my absolute lowest, taking a homesick walk through the Diag listening to Lorde’s “Liability,” within the same one mile radius that I have found deep inner peace reading the faded messages on bathroom stall doors in between classes.
I think we all have places on campus — the bench outside South Quad, Joe’s Pizza, the Sweetwaters on Main Street — that tie us to the people and things that change us forever, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not.
Ann Arbor is a city home to approximately 44,000 students at any given moment, which means that there are about 40,000 different stories unfolding here at once. Multiply that by 200+ years of the University’s history, and we would have a map filled with about 1.6 million unique routes delineating each student’s most cherished sites. It would be confusing and hard to read, but it would be filled with so much life. And that fascinates me.
If I had the 1.9 billion words it would take to tell each of these stories, I would. Maybe someday I will. An avid follower of the blog Humans of New York, generally invasive people-watcher and English major, I am a lover of stories to my core.
But for now, let’s take an abridged journey, my journey, through a piece of this wonderfully complicated map of Ann Arbor’s stories.
The Bench Outside of South Quad
Arms interlocked, face masks on. Only the second week into our pandemic-induced 2020 introduction to college and there we were. “I’m really confused, Emily,” he sighed. My first moment of genuine human connection in this city, pure adrenaline in my heart and mind. A then friend, subsequent partner and current acquaintance.
This moment was the turn onto the expressway, the subsequent months of our freshman year together being the exits we flew past, potholes ignored. When I think of little moments that shape me, this one always comes to mind first. On that unassuming bench, on an uneventful night, your arm around me. Unprecedented breath.
Students desperate for socialization, featuring framed photos of Joel McHale and Jesse Eisenberg decorating white walls. The comically busy Jewish diaspora of the Class of 2024, myself included. Hope and gratitude in the form of knockoff New York pizza.
Before we had the chance to experience frat parties and bars or virtually any sort of social stimulation, we had Joe’s. “Going out” mid-pandemic meant sitting on the small patch of grass on South University. Or East University. Wanting to have the time of your life so badly that you made it so. In the loneliest time of all of our lives — 2020 — we made do. What I remember most about these bizarrely entertaining nights are the celebrity photos on the wall of Joe’s. Proof the world once looked different than it did in that moment, reminding me of the simple solace found in the people who will never know you and you love them for their simultaneous distance and comfort.
Sweetwaters on Main Street
“The kids go crazy for those,” he told me. I told him I loved the fairy doors too, knelt down onto the floor and took pictures for nobody but myself. Businesses closed, doors disappeared and my body crouched to the floor in the middle of a busy coffee shop.
Ann Arbor’s “urban fairy doors,” first introduced by artist Jonothon Wright, have populated local businesses since 1993. The Michigan Theater, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, Sweetwaters on Main and about a dozen other locations near campus are home to miniature doors no taller than six inches.
These fairy doors became a strange obsession of mine, one that presented me with a reincarnation of the childhood I was beginning to yearn for in an uncomfortable new stage of life. That unparalleled feeling of wonder gave me a reason to get up, go out and see this city in ways I hadn’t before. It was alone time, in small doses, in a place I had yet to explore without constant companionship.
Finding these fairy doors proved difficult in a place that had lost many of its well-loved establishments to the tumultuous times we found ourselves in. I passed through empty shells of city blocks wishing to see something simultaneously comforting and fantastic. In Sweetwaters, in the bright light of that frigid April day, a little door with a littler handle and an even littler keyhole reassured me I was going somewhere.
Alice Lloyd Courtyard
The goodbye that broke my heart (without me knowing it). Early blooming flowers, warmth all around, Ann Arbor and I on the brink of the summer we spent apart.
A moment tarnished by the subsequent moments that followed; a heartbroken summer spent waiting for time to pass and the pain to subside. One that I spent in bliss and ruminated on when all had come crashing down. The dorm our friends lived in transformed into a sanctuary for time I will never, and don’t want, to get back.
The Michigan Theater
“When I thought about college, this is where I saw myself,” I thought. Tears fell into my lap, eyes wide with affection. A viewing of Pixar’s Soul, accompanied by hundreds of other viewers, the sheer beauty of shared experiences. If high school me knew what I was up to on that breezy Thursday night at the very venue that made me choose Michigan, she might, for once, be proud of me.
The Michigan Daily News Desk
A simultaneously surreal and humbling exploration of what we’ve lost and what we’ve found. Two semesters of sitting reporting on Tuesday night Central Student Government Zoom meetings later, and finally the building I had only walked past with my parents held the people I had been anxious to finally meet. I dreamt for so long about what it would feel like to be in this space. It feels a lot more complicated than I anticipated. Collective social anxiety, decentralized leadership and the constant companionship of our phones and computers made the newsroom feel less like a home and more like a house under construction after a flood.
Mason Hall Third Floor Bathroom
A place of peace, for what it’s worth. It didn’t particularly matter what words were written on the walls. It was simply the notion that there were any words there at all. A community of women finding the oddest of places to tell their truths, or at least some part of them.
“Most people barely know themselves,” the wall told me. “What’s it matter what they think of you?” I decided to start listening more to the wall and less to myself.
State Street, Outside Angell Hall
“Why don’t we treat blue skies like we do sunsets?”
On the first (of four) nice days this April, going outside was not just a necessity, but a privilege. I wished to see the sunset and wondered about its colorful glory. Instead, I chose to absorb the expansion of the blue sky above me.
They say college is a blur, but it feels more like looking through a camera with a default setting that’s intentionally out of focus. It’s an overstimulating microcosm of rushing emotions, warranting the imminent confusion and distress that comes with the exerting forces of intensified social and academic pressures. But it is not to be taken passively.
Moments explode before us, and yet we come out of the rubble to go through it all over again, finding resilience in the hope that we eventually have ourselves and the world somewhat figured out. Our paths are not static; there are places we go back to, and ones that we don’t and ones we choose to omit from the map entirely because we wish we had never been there in the first place.
And yet, we continue to follow our paths, allowing this directionally-incoherent mess to propel us into the next brief moment of heightened clarity; when we revert to the backseat of our crowded minds and listen to the engine whirr.
Statement Correspondent Emily Blumberg be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.