On Being Present

Ever since I got back on campus, now one month ago, something has just felt off, something about this campus just isn’t the same. Part of it has to do with being a junior, where some of my closest friends are abroad, friends whose faces I really wanted to see after a long summer. Another part has to do with missing friends and classmates from the Class of 2019 who I realize won’t be coming back. Then, of course, there is just the transition to different classes with a different schedule, a new role as an RA, and the fact that I spent my summer in a different country. 

But when I really think about why this campus feels wildly different than how I left it in the spring, I’m reminded of a text I got from a friend in the beginning of August: 

“I just want to emphasize that I really hope this year you remember to take some more time for yourself and friends and doing fun things that are purely for enjoyment...I feel like I just saw glimpses of you last semester. And tbh there were some times I really needed you. And there were times I wish I could have been of more help to you too.”

Ever since leaving campus in May, I had been meaning to text this friend, who I consider one of my best friends at Swat. I know that last spring I was extremely absent from the lives of my friends - and honestly, not even just from my friends but even my classmates and professors. On the Saturday night of the Tri-College Asian Student Conference (Tri-CASC), a conference I had spent the better part of a year imagining and planning, when the rest of the planning team members were sitting around in Upper Tarble enjoying bubble tea and Insomnia Cookies, I was sitting in a meeting between editors of Voices and the Phoenix on what to do with the Phi Psi archives we were anonymously sent. I missed two of my favorite professors’ last classes because at noon I joined a sit-in at Valerie Smith’s office pressuring her to terminate the fraternity leases. I ended up starting and finishing one of my final papers after the official last day of finals because the week before I could not bring myself to do any school work while on a hunger strike. I think about all the meals I promised I would get with people at the end of the year and the fact that when I finally got around to trying to schedule them, I only had two days before I left campus.

When challenged to think about some goals I had this semester, I wrote, “actually have friends,” which, while only partially a joke, speaks more deeply to altering my conception of presence. I was physically on campus last semester, and if you spent enough time in Sci Commons on any given day you would probably see me getting my chai latte and yogurt parfait. And, to be honest, if you came up to me eating my yogurt parfait and drinking my chai latte, I certainly would have said hi, probably given you a hug, and engaged in some kind of conversation. At the time, to me, and maybe to you, I was undoubtedly present - maybe a little busy, but most certainly still there. 

But I think about that text my friend sent me, emphasizing that while she saw me, it was only in the glimpses she got while passing by - a greeting while I was working in Sci Commons and she was heading to do her own work in a Sci classroom, a serendipitous moment where we happened to be walking the same way to our different engagements. Even those meals I got with friends, that one hour a day not spent in class, in meetings, or doing work, were just glimpses squeezed between all the moments in which I needed to get things done. 

So many of us live and die by our Google calendars, and I know I’m not the only one guilty of gushing to a friend, “Let’s grab a meal sometime!” before turning right back to my laptop to finish the reading response due in 30 minutes as they walk away, both of us fully knowing no one is going to follow up on that invitation. Capitalism is tricky that way. It convinces us that only certain things are important - most specifically, the measurable things: grades, obviously, but also how many organizations we are a part of, how many miles we run in a week, how much sleep we do (or don’t) get. Even the idea of grabbing meals with someone deals with commodified time: what is the best way to utilize my time so that I can accomplish two non-work things at the same time so I have more time for work?

My argument for being busy all the time is always that I care about all the things I do. It’s not the schoolwork that took up all my time, but rather the important work I felt would make the school a better place. That work was absolutely necessary, right? But even then, the premise remains the same: When choosing between planning a conference and actively participating in my friends’ lives beyond a weekly or monthly text of “Hey! We haven’t talked in a while - how are you?” the conference would always win out. Everything has become commodified, every choice we make a careful weighing of what is most useful. Even when we do choose that day trip to Philly or night spent chatting at Crumb, the question that always follows is how we will get the work done that we put off to enjoy ourselves.

As I sit here alone writing this piece at 1 a.m., I can feel my internalized capitalism chastising me for enjoying the three hour dinner I had with friends last night. There is nothing tangible I produced from the recaps we shared of our summers, and now I am being forced to sacrifice sleep to produce this piece for a publication in whose success I am so deeply invested. On the other hand, I can choose to celebrate that three hour dinner, how quickly and enjoyably time just passed, how I didn’t check my phone to see if there was anything I needed to rush off to. Well, okay, I did check a few times, but in the moment I let those constraints go and waited until Sharples kicked us out to step back into my readings.

So, how am I going to “actually have friends” this semester? I’m going to start by being a friend to myself, giving myself grace not only when I can’t make a meeting or miss a deadline, but also forgiving myself when I catch myself measuring my worth based on what I do and what I produce. I want to truly be present when a friend asks me to hang out, not squeezing them in between two meetings and remembering that, when it comes to being surrounded by people whom you love and who love you back, there is no measurement for what you gain when you spent that time with them, nor should there be. 

The truth is, when we value our health, our friends, and the time spent purely experiencing this wild adventure called college, only then can we do our best work. We hear the word self care thrown out all the time, but I challenge us to think even further in beginning to practice community care. What does it mean to be a good friend? What does a community look like when we can confidently know we can rely on each other for support? It is only by mutually taking care of and being connected with each other that we can fully take care of ourselves, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Today we’re entering week three of the fall semester. I know I’ve already had conversations with friends about wasting time and feeling like we’re already behind in classes. As Editor-In-Chief of Voices, I’m thinking about the number of articles we need to publish every week and the number of writers we need to accomplish that. We’re back at Swat, and for so many of us that means pushing until we can’t give any more, and when we can’t give any more, sacrificing anything to which we cannot assign a concrete value. This semester, I am choosing to be present - present in my conversations, present in my friends’ lives, and present in my own life. I want to reclaim what it means to be at Swat, and I invite you all to join me in figuring out how.

In love and solidarity,

Tiffany Wang ‘21, Editor-In-Chief