When I came back to Ann Arbor after a spring term spent in lakeside cabins, I began to feel awkward in normal conversations. Something that had felt regular before now seemed peculiar to me: that people were always asking me what I was doing, whether I had a job, whether I was taking summer classes, what I’m studying and whatever else. I had had these kinds of conversations countless times before and never thought anything of it — it was just normal.
We ask each other these questions for legitimate reasons: Details like what you’re studying, where you work and what brings you to this school are important and can be revelatory in and of themselves about certain attributes of a person. We’re at a big school; there are a lot of people here and as a result there’s a wide range of possibilities as to what someone could be doing here.
These conversations about what we’re doing here at the University of Michigan are inherently career-oriented because that’s what most of us are here to do — to build skills that will help us make money in some way or another. This means our conversations are really about commodities and what kinds of commodities we’ll be offering to the world economy when all is said and done. Pretty dehumanizing, when you think of it that way.
On one hand it’s natural: What we spend our time doing greatly influences what we talk about. But sometimes we lose sight of how to just be with each other, not talking about school, about jobs, about what seven different organizations we’re involved in. What may seem obvious, but didn’t become clear to me until this summer, is that in these conversations people won’t tell you what they’re about — their sense of humor, their temperament, what makes them tick. During the spring semester I spent in the woods, the conversations I was having with people did bring these things out — what I didn’t understand was why.
That spring I was lucky enough to participate in the New England Literature Program, which brings 40 University undergraduates and 13 instructors to Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, to stay in cabins, hike and live like transcendentalists — kind of. The program allowed me to make some of the best friendships of my life, taking courses on literature from the region and doing lots and lots of writing. Just 53 strangers, six weeks and all that writing done in a journal that becomes the culmination of your personal and academic experience, both of which will become inextricably, inexplicably intertwined. We had no phones, no computers, no recorded music, no Internet. The screens weren’t digital, they only framed images between window panes — tall trees against waves of the water; when you tapped them only a little dust and dirt shook into the air.
It takes a certain kind of person to want to do that kind of thing — a certain kind of student who’s had a certain kind of experience at the University. Everyone who went to NELP was looking for something new, and some were looking to escape, for that’s what NELP inherently is. The program is heavily influenced by transcendentalist ideals, partly because of the setting and partly because we read lots of Emerson and Thoreau, who escaped an industrializing Boston when he wandered into the woods some 200 years ago.
There’s a lot to say about Thoreau: He was a fake; he was an artist; he was a privileged white dude who wandered into the woods while slaves and ex-slaves were trying to gain basic human rights. While all these perspectives are crucial, I also like to think of Thoreau as a rebel. He rejected the mechanization of life and the conventional practices of that region’s Christianity, talking about the glory of God in the trees and the wind and the water.
A huge part of NELP was being weird, doing something because you want to, because you believe it’s what’s right or is somehow justified. We made paintings, sang sentences, wrote poetry, and had class sitting on logs because it was the only thing we could do.
This — the no screens, the no social media, the lack of a University setting and no oppressive classroom desk arrangements that alienate us from one another — all meant our interactions were stripped down, devoid of so much superficiality that was so ubiquitous in my life in Ann Arbor. At NELP, we didn’t talk about all the clubs we’re in because that wasn’t relevant. We were all doing the same thing there, which allowed us to skip the surface and just be human with one other. We defecated in the woods and next to each other in stalls; we swam in our underwear and read Frederick Douglass, thought about who we were together and carved out parts of our identities.
Back in Ann Arbor after that dream of a time, I felt uncomfortable in these talks about what we were all doing here because those weeks in the woods gave me the choice to just be. It’s easy to understand that how we spend our time influences what conversations we have, but we need to see past the surface stuff, not forgetting how to just enjoy each other’s company. Focus on the song that’s playing that you like, on the weird hat that guy across the room is wearing. Simply being together takes courage here at this school where grades are important and everyone has several online profiles, an image or agenda that they’re trying to promote. But now simply being — with myself and with others — is all I can do anymore to feel any semblance of being grounded.