Check me out.
That’s how Roger Angell began his essay This Old Man. An opus on what it means to age with purpose, Angell catalogues his decaying body — his withered knuckles, dwindling eyesight, and jagged spine.
So check me out.
I’m staring into the mirror in my bathroom, my teary eyes making unwavering contact with my reflection. My hands are gripping the sink below me with such intensity that my knuckles have turned the color of snow. My breath is heavy and fast — I feel like all of the oxygen has been sucked out of my body.
It’s July 15, and Kenyon has just announced that juniors and seniors are going to be studying remotely in the fall. I’m not handling the news well.
It would be dishonest to say that Kenyon returning to its online format was the reason behind my panic attack; it was more the realization that Kenyon as a physical entity — which I had viewed as my escape and source for personal autonomy since March, when coronavirus took over the world — was gone.
In his essay, Angell says the reason for his happiness — even as a decrepit, old man — is that he is content with having outgrown his ambitions.
Unlike Angell, I am not an old man and I have not outgrown my ambitions. I want to feel inspiration, purpose, and motivation.
I craved hanging out with my friends in our dorms, gorging on late dinners at Pierce, playing intramural basketball games at the Lowry Center, and working on the Collegian until 2:00 a.m.
But it’s not easy to feel inspired while studying remotely in your parent’s basement; especially as an only child tasked with surviving a pandemic while living in unnaturally close proximity to his (loving but) neurotic and catastrophizing father. Us spending two days together without getting into a fight is a miracle. Try almost half a year.
As my panic attack progressed to the tub — where I lay almost immobile, the water crawling down my nostrils and prying my eyelids open — I thought to myself: Do I want to spend the next five months of my life doing something I don’t love, in a place I can’t stand?
I decided no, I didn’t. I had spent the summer interning virtually and made some of my own money — and was offered a continuation of the job into the fall. After discussing with my parents (who were more than pleased to avoid paying the tuition of an online semester) I deferred and moved out. I spent my days from then on out as a nomad, staying with friends, housesitting for family, and finally ending up in a subleased apartment.
When I began this journey as a new entrant into the “real world,” I made a promise to myself to make this brief period of my life — where my usual, prescribed responsibilities were now on hold — time well spent. And even though, in many cases, saying you’re “focusing on spending your time wisely” sounds ambiguous and banal (who isn’t), I felt an obligation to myself to maximize this opportunity.
My travels began in Newton, Massachusetts.
I’m apartment-sitting for my uncle Scott. Scott’s an affable and kind man, with salt-and-pepper hair and an appetite for beating me at chess. I’m tending to his apartment while he spends time going back and forth from his job in Boston to his wife and daughter in Maine.
This is my first taste of the real world: working a nine-to-five job while living completely on my own — no family, no friends, and no school.
As I quickly found out, there are little victories that come with living on your own and being your own provider. No one can judge you for eating a frozen pizza for breakfast, or spending the entire day pants-less. It’s liberating.
I spent my days working, my nights practicing skateboarding in abandoned lots, and my weekends exploring the town, taking note of the streets I passed, parks I dozed in, and the businesses I patronized.
But it wasn’t always easy.
My first trip to the grocery store was not what many would call a success. I walked in prepared; like the domesticated, responsible bachelor I strived to be, I had created an entire list of healthy and cost-conscious groceries: Brown rice. Pasta. Celery. Carrots. And so on.
The moment I walked into the Stop-N-Shop on Needham Road, the long aisles of discounted produce, salty chips and frozen meats became nothing more than a hazy blur of shapes and figures. I remember very little from my time in the store, but somehow I exited with two boxes of frozen beef patties and not much else.
Who knew you could have performance anxiety at the grocery store.
I’d also be lying if I said that I hadn’t put dish soap in the dishwasher, taken a nap, and re-entered the kitchen to an army of bubbles rising up from the floor in sudsy protest. (On a serious note, who’s the genius that made dish soap and dish detergent two separate things? I’d like to have a word.)
Additionally, no amount of soul-searching and joyous celebration of one’s independence can fully erase the reality that I lived in a city where I knew no one, and had no means of transportation beside the feet attached to the bottom of my legs. As it turns out, living by yourself in a pandemic can get pretty lonely.
But regardless of pangs of lonesomeness, grocery-store anxiety and a feud with dishwashing products, for the first time in my life, I felt truly, incomparably, free.
As Angell would say, check me out.
I’m now in Maine.
My body is sinking into the hammock by the lake. I’m watching the sunset; the sun is gently kissing its little ripples, its orange body slowly spreading over the face of the water like a blanket. Life is good.
Unfortunately there’s an expiration date on my visit. I’m visiting Scott, my aunt Amy, and my seven-year-old cousin Grace for a few days in Maine, before heading back to Newton.
On my last night there, Scott and I stayed up late into the night playing chess. We played tactically and aggressively, rearranging and shuffling our pieces in stoic concentration, our brows hot with sweat and crumpled in thought.
Our chess game became a forum for conversation. Since I moved into his apartment, I had spent more time with Scott than ever before. I picked up on his peculiarities — when he was home, the TV always remained on; even when neither of us were in the room (or home, for that matter) — but I also was able to learn about the events that shaped his adult life.
Life hadn’t always been easy for Scott. Without delving too deep into his personal affairs, his previous marriage, and the one with Amy, have not always gone as smoothly as he would have hoped.
During this lengthy series of chess matches, we discussed, amongst other things, the questions I had been grappling with since I moved out: namely, how to spend one’s time well.
In an uncharacteristically soft voice, he conveyed to me that, during these turbulent periods, it was hard not to feel despondent. But it was the more recent revelation that the time he spent with his wife and child in Maine, swimming in the lake, cooking family meals, snuggling up by the fire pit — time that had been previously unavailable to him in the period when he and Amy had broken up and lived across the country from each other — was more valuable to him than anything.
“This is what it’s all about,” he said.
I’m ending my journey in Brooklyn.
Since I moved into Newton earlier in the summer, I had scoured the depths and crevices of the internet nearly every day in search of an affordable, subleased apartment that could house me and a couple of friends.
I became obsessed; I had an insatiable hunger to find the one, perfect listing that could meet all of our needs — a hunger that, finally, was alleviated by a succulent three-bedroom loft on Facebook Marketplace in Brooklyn, New York.
What made me most proud of this accomplishment — apart from the 100-something hours I put into the venture — was that I finally had something that was tangibly mine. I, Jackson Wald, was paying rent. My name was signed to the bottom of the lease.
We began our lease almost right when Kenyon began its semester. I was able to observe my two roommates taking Zoom classes at Kenyon while I plugged away at my computer working. It was jarring, in a way. I could see a possible version of myself that —unlike my roommates who were enjoying their classes — had decided to take classes in the fall, and was totally miserable.
During our time in the loft, we biked across the bridges between Manhattan and Brooklyn late at night, when the city that never sleeps was so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. We spent hours in the scattered parks all across the city, basking in the healthy September sun. We cooked meals together, hosted friends, argued, made up, laughed. I wouldn’t trade the time I spent there for anything in the world.
I fully saw how splendid being an adult can be.
Now, as I prepare to return to the Hill in February, I think back on Angell’s distinctly human acceptance of his time on earth — and how, even as his mortality can be but a breath removed, he still can find joy in the present.
It’s an important lesson he teaches us, and I can now say with confidence that I believe wherever you are — whether it be alone, with family, or with friends — time well spent is time with a purpose.
For me, in these past few months, the purpose of my time was largely learning what it was like to live on my own, and explore what had previously been unknown to me. Like working a real 9-5. Cooking and shopping for my own meals. Paying my own rent. What I needed, what drove me and gave me inspiration, purpose, and motivation was that no matter where I was, I was beholden to no one but myself.
But it was also to learn about, and from, others — to see that while, currently, I may place ultimate value on my time exploring the world as an independent, hopefully someday like Scott and Angell, it’ll be enough to simply bask in the now.