woods and waves
building stills to slow down the times
I – “Downward Spiral”—Danny Brown
So, it’s a global pandemic. You’re given two options: become a master chef, or turn happy hour into a tad too many happy days. Which to choose? Think fast, it’s the end times! Or, ponder it a minute; it’s not like you’re pressed for time and have to be somewhere. If you’re like me, though, you are in a rush to get your mind elsewhere. To a place more productive. Relaxed. More…secure than what our current world seems capable of offering. So what’s it gonna be, kids? Sauteed onions or Svedka?
Of course, a next generation composed strictly of cooking and chardonnay seems more than a little unlikely. But the underlying sentiment of the question is real, as are the implications for how we will likely spend the next few months of our lives. Do I jump headfirst into an uncertain future or sink into justifiable despair for the one ripped away from us? As I slug back another Bud Light (yeah, I know) in the cramped confines of my childhood bedroom, I can’t help but question whether petty distractions and self-important sadness are really the ways I wish to spend the rest of my cut-short college career. Who knew that a throwaway joke on the “Zoom Memes for Self-Quaranteens” Facebook page could put me in such a state of existential dread? This black-and-white mentality is clearly symptomatic of my crippling tendency to wax nostalgic. Read any article I’ve written for post-, and you’ll likely find too-trite tones of bittersweet nostalgia mixed with overlong overtures about the merits of movies—all concluded by a series of saccharine self-assertions that boil down to me wishing I could live in my old photographs.
I’ve now been asked to write for what could be the last time. And, as I comb through my old words, prepared to embark on yet another mawkish contrast between past and present, I’ve arrived at “to hell with it all” before I can even begin. I’m not gonna write about how shitty this situation is; we all know it. I, a privileged white kid who grew up 20 minutes from our now-abandoned campus, am hardly in an appropriate position to discuss how this virus has displaced all of us from our friends, our studies, our communities, and our envisioned futures.
II – “Woods”—Bon Iver
But can I talk about a movie? It’s a good one, I promise: Chris Marker’s La Jetée. Sound pretentious? It is. It’s even got crazy creepy post-apocalyptic Greek choir-style music! The plot’s admittedly less than simple: In the aftermath of World War III, a P.O.W. is hurled backward and forward in time by scientists in a desperate attempt to “call past and future to the rescue of the present.” While traveling, he falls in love with a woman from the past and struggles to stay with her through an uncertain…well, everything. Existence itself faces potentially permanent alteration with every trip through time our hero embarks upon. Yet their love survives, somehow frozen in time—an apt description, as the film is told almost entirely in still black-and-white images. Like our hero, we are trapped in fleeting snapshots of life, each image a temporary shrine to the current moment that is bound to be destroyed by the sudden shift to the next. The only element which tethers each image to the others is a voice-over that affirms their connection; narrating in the third person, this mysterious voice assures us that despite all the time-hopping, distractions, and diversions, this order is deliberate, meticulous, intended. The oncoming “present” may be open to change, yet the march forward remains inevitable.
What we can control, however, is our sense of perspective. How the connections we draw between our fixed past, perceived present, and hypothetical futures allow for a sense of meaning to unfold that is old and new alike. Which images we construct—of ourselves, of those we love—and the beauty in seeing these images enhance, expand, and evolve with time. The added wrinkles that come with the pleasure and pain of continuously being. Some of these will be better than others, to be sure. Yet they’re all part of the same package, the waves and ripple effects of moving into a new day, of being the full sum of your parts as you add even more to your repertoire. Ever heard the song “Woods” by Bon Iver (a classic sad boy anthem)? It’s made up entirely of the band’s frontman, Justin Vernon, harmonizing with himself. You’re left with the impression that he’s attempting to uncover every sliver of his current emotional state—each new entry into his personal cacophony mirroring the myriad emotions that come from his gaze into himself. The swell of a sudden moment of catharsis, the temporary release of a primal scream, the repetitive thuds and strain of cyclical thoughts: By the song’s end, all coexist in simultaneity, as if what seemed to be the initial picture was but a single layer of a broader canvas waiting to reveal itself. Each voice is an image unto its own, each pitch a brushstroke leading to the creation of something that could only exist in relation to its counterparts. In many ways, this is how I feel my time at Brown came to be—for as much as I did for myself, it was assuredly not done alone.
III – “Waves”—Kanye West
I see so many of you as part of my own personal “picture.” So many overwhelming, quiet, explosive, beautiful moments brought into my life by happenstance and chance. Splatters of color upon the canvas of my collegiate experience. And while the feeling of the past few weeks has likely been, for many of us, one of mourning and melancholia, it’s important to remember that this temporary ending is nothing less than a fraction of the journey we have all embarked upon together. A journey of which much has already been set in stone—one that cannot be changed by an unexpected ending, quick goodbyes, or whatever new curveball the universe decides to throw our way. So, rather than sigh about a senior spring that wasn’t, I’d prefer to look back at what we shared and shape it into snapshots of something…broader. Special. With all of its creases and details. To share some mementos from our time together and embrace a temporary monument to what we did complete, in the here and now. As of now, we seniors are pencilled in to make our glorious return for commencement in October—a promise that has been met with eye rolls and apprehension. Sure, our time from now until May took an unexpected course. But if having a commencement on time in some alternative reality meant a different path—one that didn’t produce the me’s and you’s of this moment, the me’s and you’s of today—I wouldn’t change how things have played out in reality for the world.
My first post- article was about Netflix’s ingenious BoJack Horseman and its profound effect on my sense of self. Ironically, its last season concluded this past January—apt timing for our then-presumed-distant departure. There’s a beautiful moment toward the end of the show in which two of the series mainstays, formerly married and now distant friends, discuss the status of their current relationship. One mentions she wishes the people they have become today were the ones who married one another in the first place. Her ex-husband responds that they wouldn’t be who they are today without having met exactly when they did. How else would they be themselves now?
I won’t pretend to know what our futures bring. But the person I am today? He wouldn’t exist without the community and memories you all have granted me. And the picture I have of myself today looks a hell of a lot better than it once did. Sometimes I wish I could talk to the earlier me—the one who walked through the Van Wickle Gates a sweaty, nervous mess, convinced he had all kinds of shit to figure out. I’d tell him not to worry. The strangers who surrounded him then would soon become friends. Influences. Companions. And the person who walks through those gates again, whenever that may be? He’s excited to show the world just who it helped create. Nature may be the current victor, but I’ll always have the nurture. And us? We’ll always have the woods.