They say that life is a cycle. By “they,” I mean the good men and women of the Cliché Machine (it’s like the War Machine, only more persistent and more effectual in driving the US economy). By “cycle,” I guess they mean that our time here on Earth is relentlessly governed by a set of patterns. The notion is hard to argue with when you look at biology—there’s that whole thing that organisms do, what with the being born and the reproduction and the dying—but it’s something surprisingly easy to lose sight of when you’re a college freshman in Southern California.
I bring the Southland into this because, frankly, it’s one of the most bizarre places to be at a time like this (and by “a time like this,” I mean November). I drew up some haughty metaphor rooted in Greek mythology a few weeks ago (regular readers, put your hands up for recognition) in order to convey the feeling of weather-related alienation that pervades my experience in the land of eternal sunshine. It wasn’t until I was stuck in a hailstorm in the middle of the street, playing a mental game of duck-duck-goose with the lightening while I stood physically paralyzed between the Tigris and Euphrates (which had conveniently taken up residence on either bank of North College Avenue) that I realized I’d forgotten to mention that it’s not just the sunshine that wigs me out.
Seasons ground you. They give you a sense of familiarity and purpose and hope—the night being darkest (and coldest, and longest) before the dawn; turn, turn, turn—all that jazz. As a true bicoastal— by the time I graduate, I’ll have lived 11 years each in New York and LA—I can testify to the difference a predictable weather schedule makes. In fact, as I scrambled to maintain my increasingly tenuous grip on sanity throughout the college application process, I took solace in the predictability of nature. Winter was rough, but it would inevitably be followed by spring; similarly, the Common App threatened to suck all of the life force out of me on a regular basis, but I got through thinking of the payoff that ultimately awaited my perseverance (and there would be a payoff, right? Somebody would have to take me! Right?!?).
We don’t get that environmental comfort object here. We live on the edge, constantly overshadowed by the creeping fear of mudslides, forest fires, long-overdue earthquakes, tsunamis, and the occasional hailstorm of biblical proportions—if anything, our environment can sometimes feel like the enemy. Most of my high school chums are at liberal arts schools back east, which means that right about now I’m getting to hear them harp plenty about the October snowfall in Bennington, those frigid Amherst evenings, and the general dreariness of Poughkeepsie. I say, at least they knew what to expect going into it—I left all my hooded jackets on Long Island, and I’ve got a pockmarked cranium to prove it. Situating a consortium of “the New England type” on top of what is so obviously a Hellmouth never made less sense to me than it did on Sunday night.
It was the anxious mother of a prospective student who best articulated the sentiment. She’d grown up in some Midwestern college town or another, and she just couldn’t get down with the conceptual marriage of the liberal arts and the sultry southern climate. “It just doesn’t seem right to send him here,” she confided in me over a recent admissions lunch. “Doesn’t it feel too weird somehow?”
I thought about my own life here, so radically different from the lives of my former classmates. It is weird in a lot of ways, but there’s got to be something to it. When we go west, young men and women, we lose that rhythmic security associated with the changing of the seasons as we know them, but in return—as the payoff for beating the Common App, perhaps—we get to strike out on our own, to experiment for a while as strangers in a strange land, to pursue our own personal manifest destinies and to make up our own rules. We get, in essence, to break the cycles of conformity that keep us bound to our childhood schemas of how the world works—in some small weather-related way, at least. As for the hail, the tremors, and the mudslides—I guess they only serve to keep us on our toes. This is not the land of eternal sunshine. This is the land of the game that moves as you play, and that actually lends itself rather nicely to the values espoused by the liberal arts education. There is no room for stagnation here. Eventually, you learn to think on the spot, you gather your strength, you slosh through the Euphrates and up onto the curb, and you run home through the hail. The next morning when it’s sunny and 80 degrees, you’re stronger for it all. Or something.
At any rate, “they’re” not wrong about life. Night gives way to day gives way to night, unless you live in the Arctic Circle; the tide ebbs and flows, unless you live on a pond. On second thought, maybe it’s harder to make a definitive statement about the cyclical behavior of nature than it is to speak to the predictability of man. I looked across the table at that woman and her son, and I saw her sheer terror at the prospect of sending her baby anywhere, let alone to this crazy place; I saw his angst and trepidation and weariness and frustration with the whole process. And I got the weirdest, most complete feeling of déjà vu I’d ever had in my life, and then an overwhelming nostalgia that made me want to reach out and hug the poor sucker and myself both, because I knew that he was going to be just fine (somebody would have to take him, right?) and I was too because history repeats itself and stuff tends to work out. You see, there are cycles here. They’re just subtle, and you just have to know where to look for them. And when you find them—well, that’s the greatest payoff of them all.