We are at that point in our young adult lives where self-expression begins to matter. The research papers we write, the special items of clothing that comprise our signature outfits, the concert tickets on which we splurge and the stubs we tuck away for safe memory-keeping. What about the people among a field of 14,000 peers who become the faces in our cover photos, the phone numbers in our over-active text groups, the authors of thoughtful little Post-it notes letting you know they care and later wedding toasts letting you know they have always been there for you? It seems appropriate that everything we choose to preserve — be it friendships or objects — becomes a reflection of who we are. It is daunting and disconcerting as well. Self-expression has never been more critical; yet, with so many more options and obstacles, it has never been so amorphous to grasp and difficult to perfect. College does not necessarily have to be where we find ourselves, but it cannot be the place where we lose ourselves.
So, how do we do it? How on Earth do we compose some semblance of self when the books we read tell us a million different things, when “identity” relentlessly figures as a hot button issue, and when society takes pride in selfless acts as opposed to selfish considerations?
For me, the best determination of who we are, or who we genuinely want to be, comes from what we keep: things such as journals, trinkets, friends and grudges. It would be too misleading and simplistic to say we are what we display. Not every girl touting a Barbour jacket and Tory Burch flats subscribes to the same ideologies, idiosyncrasies and magazines. Sift through the desk drawers of these J.Crew shoppers, and I believe you will find the closest thing that exists to self-reflection.
Similarly, the “alternative” kids lounging around Para Coffee are not just the sum of their Converses, public Spotify playlists and beanies. Surely what we choose to display — and to hide — bears on our identity, but I think this “identity” is too easily manipulated, too geared toward an audience. What we keep to ourselves, for ourselves and of ourselves reflects far beyond any particular item. We are what we keep.
Now that I have laid out this comprehensive plan to self-discovery, I cannot help but think: Well, shoot, what does this say about me?
I have kept my baby blanket for the longest time, unable to let go of a companion and the childhood that goes with it. There was a journal-keeping phase, a sign of a disillusioned and challenging third year. As if one Moleskine notebook was not enough, there was “that other” journal phase meant to keep memories of abroad fresh in my homebound mind. Every ticket stub, wristband, or random scrap makes its way to my “Life” jar, a collective keepsake that entertains my preemptive nostalgia for college. So am I self-reflective, nostalgic, unable or unwilling to be where my feet are? My worn copies of “Harry Potter” and “The Elements of Style” remain perched on my shelf. I am a literary nerd, realizing that William Strunk would roll over in his grave if he saw any of this column’s passive voice, incorrect syntax and serial commas.
This hypothesis should not necessarily encourage a University-wide “Room Raiders” epidemic, but I hope it compels you to think more critically about your own keepsakes. The conscious and unconscious choices you make about what to keep through the years provide a linear sequence in an otherwise discombobulated world. While this was probably not a recipe for a series of Joycean epiphanies, I hope it at least provides encouragement to keep on keepin’ on.
Elizabeth’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.