On my second day of Deep Springs, I, along with all my fellow first-years, was led into the garden by Shelby. We came before a bed of strange plants, and before I processed the glorious sight of glowing vegetables before me, I looked to my new peers. The engagement varied, but the instant reflection was the familiarity. Jesse looked upon the gracious green with the same endearment I have when I see my dog. Declan looked like he’d never seen a vegetable before, and Jacob was seemingly awed by a pear tree. I was more on their side than Jesse’s. Though I grew the odd squash and pear in my backyard, I’d never really been a part of a garden like this. Everything around me seemed bursting to life, popping at me. The crops reminded me of piranha plants, bright and ready to jump. The turkeys were like chain chomps, jutting their thick, sacky necks forward and gobbling like they wanted to eat me. And I suppose I was Mario, just trying to find my way through this weird place and keep my eyes on the path.
To each of us first years, the garden gave us a different sense of comfort. I was perplexed but enthralled. Though the place was overwhelmingly alien, the novel beauty was incredibly compelling. Shelby let us loose to wander and I took in these forms, not accepting them as my own, but observing them necessarily as another. This was the earth, guided by our hand, producing its most magical treasures. Us and the ground, becoming one through this carefully arranged, grotesquely beautiful life.
We sat under an apple tree, and Shelby read us some passages about place. Specifically, she told us of what one’s place sounds like. Familiar. Comfortable. Ours. Intensely, our own. She asked us to think of our own sense of place, and this sent my mind into shambles.
I thought of my dorm from last year. It was a small space, four stories up, overlooking the rest of my high school’s campus. When I first climbed up those four flights of stairs, and opened the door of room 409, I was scared. The walls of white cinder blocks glared down, a small, dusty air vent whispered by the door, and the sparse furniture, a depressing imitation of wood, stared at me like it didn’t want to be here either. The only thing differentiating the room from a prison cell was its lack of a toilet.
After I moved in, the fundamental emptiness of my room began to fade. It started with a couch and a carpet, which produced leisure in the cell. Then came the people: first, my roommate Tomas, then my hallmates of Marco and Steven and Marwan, and then my soccer teammates Ben and Kevin. Then a fridge, and food attracts people like flies. My room became renowned for its scent of cumin and coriander filling the halls, as I used Marco’s illegal pot (a cooking pot, of course, which was against school rules) to satisfy late night cravings for khichuri. People, my people, littered the space with stories, memories, music. I covered the piercingly white walls with grayscale photographic prints, transforming them into glimpses of beautiful moments. I cleaned the vent, so it stopped whispering through clogged dirt, and the furniture was stuffed with my papers, pens, and clothing. The empty room filled to the brim with a space that was intensely my own. The cell became home.
Then Covid struck. In the middle of March, with no preparation, I bid my “see you in two weeks!” to faces that I’ve never seen since. I left the room with no romantic goodbye, just a shove. And as I sat in my room, in my house, for the eighth week of quarantine, I learned something. I read Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism and came across the words, “homelessness is the destiny of the modern man.” I realized that I was homeless in Heidegger’s sense. I certainly had a roof over my head, but I only existed in transience. Students only attend the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for two years. The porch I sat on every night would, in two years, house people I’ll never meet. Ninth Street, where my school resided, lost the Waffle House I went to every week, and the restaurants turn over as quickly as students. I became distantly close with faces I’d never see again, and I lived through stories of people and places that have disappeared. Marco lost weight and grew serious, entangled in his first relationship. His music taste went from Kanye to Playboy Carti and I feel like I lost him. Each of my friends grew and dispersed, and in two more years, they’ll have transformed in ways I’ll never see the way I did in 409. I made my home in an empty room that was destined to become empty again in just nine months.
My home was never really destined to last. I was bound to leave my house for another two years in another eight weeks. After I realized this, I became skeptical of comfort. Home couldn’t exist in a world where I’m just a piece that’s moving, because as I tried to ground myself, the ground beneath me slipped—it was moving just like I was—and I was bound to fall flat on my face once more. As a powerless 17 year old who had no clue what he wanted, who was I to try to stop the ground from moving? So instead of trying to ground myself, I hated the ground, and I hated that I couldn’t stop it.
As I sat under the apple tree, this reverie flooded back. I am ungrounded, I have no place, I thought to myself. And there I was—in an utterly alien valley, surrounded by people who look nothing like me, lived nothing like me, breathing air that felt light, with its lack of familiar humidity. I thought I was ungrounded before, but that was really just a cut from a scythe; now I was uprooted and tossed aside. I don’t want to grow new roots in this land, I thought, because I’ll just be cut and tossed aside again. I said to myself, “I need to learn to fly.”
So I’ve tried to fly. As Declan, my roommate, spent every night out on the smoking porch, I slept early, keeping my own schedule. While others went on walks, I did my readings two days in advance. I wrote to myself and sent it off as an excuse for a letter, to pretend like I’m keeping ties to home while I’ve tried to be fiercely independent.
But I don’t have wings, and trying to fly without them has been a painful, incessant struggle against myself. As I read ahead, I’d watch others walk, wishing I had the guts to join them, that I wasn’t so afraid to be a part of something.
About a week ago, I told this to the only adult here who looked like me. The one person who came up to me when I first arrived and acknowledged my struggles to identify with others, something I wrote of in my application. He told me that there is one thing grounding us all: the very ground itself. He told me that whenever I felt alone, to breathe in the earth. That no matter how hard I tried, I would always be a part of it. That I needed to share myself to be like nature, to create beauty from fundamental difference. The fields were a harmony between land and man; I needed to create harmony with others in the very same vein. And I suppose that brings me here. Today, I went back under that tree and breathed in the earth. I’m grounding myself here, because even if I’m only here for two years, the land itself will never move.