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Et in Arcadia ego

The Collegian Magazine’s Spring 2020 nonfiction contest winner.

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I am sitting at my desk back home and it is now the second half of March. I have not been home this late in the spring since my senior year of high school. Despite my sadness, the weather outside of my window is breathtakingly beautiful. I have missed spring in the South.

In Gambier, trees really begin to bloom during finals week. It’s kind of a cruel joke because by that time, I would be packing up to head back to North Carolina, where what Midwesterners would call summer is already underway. It is hot and humid when I get home, but not so hot that the grass is already lifeless and brown. That’ll come a few weeks later. I have always loved grass, and it pains me deeply to see the floor of the earth lay dead before me.

When I first toured Kenyon, my dad told me that I would be happy there because the grass would never really be dead. Fescue, the grass in Gambier and Pittsboro, is a cold weather grass, he explained. He was right. The grass did not die during Kenyon winters like it did during Pittsboro summers. During the sunnier days of fall and spring the grass was so welcomingly green that students would lie lazily on Pierce Lawn. This is one of the images of Kenyon that I’ll miss the most.

At this point, the news that I’ll never grace the Gates of Hell again as a student is rather fresh to me, and I am still at the stage of grieving that is denial. Of course, there’s that part of my brain that processes things rationally, that part which knows moving to remote coursework is the prudent course of action in the face of this pandemic. There’s that part of me that knew as soon as Amherst, Grinnell, and Oberlin made such announcements that Kenyon’s own call was inevitable.

As someone who is perennially anxious, there is a lot that stresses me out right now. I have a hypochondriac streak and my hands are already brittle from excessive exposure to Purell. I worry even more about my immediate family members and my friends that are at higher risk because they have suppressed or compromised immune systems. I worry also for the whole of humanity. We are meant to talk to each other, embrace one another, and gather together to celebrate and mourn.

I feel selfish to say, though, that the thing that has always made me the most anxious is a break in routine. When I move somewhere new, I try to settle into routines as quickly as possible and stick to them, and I was always somewhat miserable to go home because that meant a break from the routine of daily life at Kenyon that gave me such comfort.

Yet the worst part about being home for me is the exponential reduction in door opening. My favorite part of Kenyon was the fact that no matter what room you were entering, you were greeted by smiling and caring faces. When I remember Kenyon, my memories will be walking into my apartment, my friends’ apartments, classrooms, and the locker room, and immediately being greeted with the warmth and friendship that makes life worth living.

I think, like many others, I had a tendency to take things for granted at Kenyon. There were moments when I would suddenly remember just how beautiful Peirce Hall or the Ohio countryside were, but never as deeply as I remember these things now. I especially took for granted the regularity of meaningful human interaction. We are surrounded by one another at all times. Sometimes, as someone who has always had a roommate on campus, this frustrated me. I would find myself starving for some good old fashioned solitude. Now, where my days are marked by loneliness, I feel shame for wanting to get away from people so often.

There’s a sort of sick irony, too, in the fact that in my year, the Class of 2020, we always joked about being the unluckiest class. We suffered big disappointments along with the rest of the world, but also microcosmic, Kenyon-specific disappointments. Like endless construction. I think that they disappoint us, though, because humans like beautiful things. Continuity, assurance, security — these are all beautiful things. We often do things, such as choose Kenyon, because the image in our heads of us making a choice is a beautiful one. But beauty, like many things, is fleeting. 

The experiences of beauty and ugliness are intertwined. When spring comes to Kenyon and South Lawn is littered with students in florals, pastels, and sunglasses, I get an urge to get outside, to walk around, to bask in the sun. This urge is motivated in part by a sense that this weather is fleeting, that if I don’t enjoy it now, I won’t be able to later. When the weather sucks, you wake up, walk outside, and have the sinking feeling that if it’s not this ugly forever, it’ll at least be like this for far longer than you want.

I am reminded of a painting that I particularly like. Titled Et in Arcadia ego, it depicts a group of Arcadians gathered around a tomb. Arcadia, a pastoral and idyllic region in Peloponnese, was revered by the rest of the Ancient Greeks. Greece, as far as the ancient world goes, was a very urban society. Life was characterized by being in or near a major town and close to the sea for all Grecians, save the Arcadians. Arcadia was beautiful and its inhabitants, revered in works of classical poetry and theatre, were thought to lead beautiful lives.

Et in Arcadia ego translates to “Even in Arcadia, there I am.” It is famous, in part, because its title is so vague. Art historians do not know if the “I” in reference is Death personified or the dead person in the tomb. Both interpretations suggest that Death is always around the corner to rob Arcadians of their beautiful lives.

Of course, leaving college isn’t dying, but I like the painting because it’s a good reminder that nothing is ever guaranteed. Losing the final two months of senior year is disappointing because it feels like I was robbed of some memories I felt entitled to, experiences I have long expected to have. But memories and experiences are only real when they are in the past. You can only be robbed of things that are already yours. That is to say, one cannot lose something they never had.

Kenyon, for me, was Arcadia. Odds are that even if I had gotten to live out the final two months of college on campus, most of my Kenyon memories would be the ones I already have. In fact, as I seek to lock down a job and a place to live, I probably would have been caught up in the future. Still, at Kenyon, I was occasionally able to experience a sense of present-ness, getting so caught up in the joy of my friendships and the fruits of my academic and extracurricular labor that I thought only on the day, not worried about the next month, much less the year ahead. I was, so to speak, truly happy.

Yet I knew the time I spent there was beautiful because there were constant reminders that it was fleeting. Whether it be the different traditions that mark your progress to the next phase of Kenyon life, or the fact that my grandfather would always tell me, “Wow, sure does feel like college is flying by, huh?” I was always painfully aware of the impermanence of it all.

That, I think, is what’s so scary about the abrupt end. Perhaps part of what can make college so enjoyable and beautiful is the fact that college life is constantly tempered by the notion that time is fleeting. We make an effort to enjoy it because we know it won’t last.

I noticed during my senior year that one thing me and my friends refrained from talking about was what it was like to be a senior. We were all aware that things were ending, but we didn’t want to talk about it. We didn’t want to acknowledge it. I, for one, had hoped that we would be more open in the final eight weeks, saying those slow, drawn-out goodbyes to each other and to the place before Commencement gave us closure and our memories faded into that tomb that is the past. But one’s exit from Arcadia is never on their own terms.

The coronavirus is our tomb in Arcadia. It is a downpour the day after we all were lounging on the grass. Something so deadly brings to mind the inescapable mortality of ourselves and of others. It makes us see how precious and fragile the things we cherish are. The intense horror of the virus itself makes us fear that it will be a scourge to human society for the long-term. It has the powerful potential to rob us of the people we love and the many benefits that come from loving other people.

Clearly, this is an ugly thing. But ugly things, though they seem inescapable and permanent, are always broken up by the beautiful moments. The beauty of Southern spring seems everyday to be an act of defiance against the newspaper’s latest tally. Just the other day, I heard the newscaster on TV tell me that the virus could survive up to three hours in water droplets suspended in the air. When I was on my run just before that, the air overwhelmed me with the scent of blooming flowers.

In Et in Arcadia ego, one of the Arcadians sees his shadow cast upon the tomb. This shadow is at once a confirmation of his own life and a reminder that he, too, will die. The plain fact that things that begin will eventually end is not cause for dismay. The Arcadian who is ignorant of his own death is ignorant, too, of his fortune in being surrounded by such beauty. Life is reconciling the beauty of existence with the ugliness of its end. A truly beautiful thing, then, overwhelms and enraptures you and finally, inevitably, it is gone.


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