There’s a humility that comes from counting out five dollars and sixty-four cents in loose change on the gas station counter. I was on the way to the airport Friday to pick up a friend who had taken a quarter off from Stanford. That afternoon he asked for a ride from SFO to campus. I immediately responded, “You got it.”
Three hours later, I was fretting over whether or not I would have enough gas just to get there and back. I had already promised another friend that I would take her shopping at 5:15, and I supposed that that trip alone was bound to exhaust most of the remaining two gallons in my gas tank. But I had to go, so I grabbed the mug of coins on my desk, put on another sweater and got in the car.
Prior to leaving, I didn’t know how much money was in that mug. I doubted that it was enough for even two gallons. I was right.
“Just remember that next time, I won’t take all those pennies unless they’re rolled.” The attendant looks at me, knowingly.
“Well, I appreciate you accepting it this time,” I replied, meeting his eye and dipping out into the cold.
I used to be ashamed of the things that I couldn’t afford. When my friends would ask me out to dinner on a Friday afternoon, I’d try to come up with a seemingly valid excuse not to join them. That became more difficult when it happened week after week. Eventually, people lost interest in eating Friday dinner in the dining hall or scavenging leftovers from my house’s fridge.
Three and a half gallons in the tank. Taking the 101, it’s 24.4 miles from Stanford to SFO. My car gets 25 to the gallon.
From Stanford to my hometown, it’s 850 or so miles. I’ve made this fourteen-hour marathon across the desert five times, pedometer ticking from dawn to twilight. I’ve slept in gas station parking lots because I only got four hours of sleep the preceding night. When I parcel out my quarters on the counter there, the station attendant says, “I watched you sleeping out there to make sure you weren’t dead.” She holds my eyes when I thank her and slides an energy drink that I didn’t pay for across the counter. When the wind scours across a dune’s windward arch, just at the edge of the leeward slope, smooth grains of sand faithfully leap into the abyss. Plummet. It seems like only the wind carries on.
I don’t want home to trail behind me like shifting spheres of sand, shipwrecked at the Center of the Desert, the halfway point home. I’ve sat on mesas there and just watched the sun set west. My self, I believe, is neither here nor at home. It’s camped in a desert caravan, the watch over the first fire at night.
“I had to realize,” said my friend, “that nobody owed me anything. It’s a fight every day. Like training. You think coaches let a person miss a day of practice?”
“No,” I said.
“You go home,” he continued, “and see how it could be and it scares you. At first when I got injured, I just sucked it up, kept fighting harder. Then it happened again, but I still had a combative attitude. Finally, it broke again and I started to lose it. I was taking a part-time and wondering, ‘What am I doing with myself? I have so much potential and I’m working here?’”
We carry our families’ and our friends’ hopes, ambitions and pain from home. Stanford doesn’t hurt, though, not the same way. At its best it can be like an Ibuprofen pill. At its worst, you wake up from its effects to realize that you didn’t get rid of the ache pulsing in the east, but ignored it worsening, quickening. You strive to wear the totems of the class that you are compelled to be here, encouraged to enter. To blow your work on brands or swag sweaters. Most agonizing of all is when you return home, corrupted, and are chided and turned away. The nest rejects you like a baby bird contaminated by contact with an alien species.
Native bacteria rides in the vector of your gut. Chewing the sterile food makes you sick. It makes you feel strange and small. But your immunity is strong. You can eat alienation, swallow bitterness like the bad disease that it is and eliminate it with white blood cells selected for strength. You recall what brought you peace before you entered the anthill.
I began reading, again, Journey to the West. At one point, a fisherman and a woodcutter banter about what makes a tranquil existence at home so fantastic:
“I’m pleased to keep company with egrets and gulls./
I’ve no plans for fame and fortune in my heart…
…Tranquil’s the green water at the head of my boat./
Content, I’m not seeking the three minister’s seat.”
Recently, I’ve rediscovered an entire life in ratty clothes and fifty-cent mugs of coffee. I want the peace of a stacks cubby on Friday night and the bite of hunger, overactive stomach acid, as I fall asleep on Saturday. We stopped at In’ N’ Out in Mountain View and when my friend asked what I wanted, I responded.
“Just a cheeseburger.”
“How about something to drink?” he encouraged.
“Alright, a chocolate shake.”
“I’ll eat some if you order them.”
Paying me back for gas money, he asked, “Five or ten?”
He slipped ten across the counter.
There is some sand from home on your jacket. There is somebody looking out for you at the Palm Springs gas station. Your friend wants a ride to the grocery store or from the airport. They want to know you and listen to the flickering speakers in your car. You don’t have to feel ashamed because you pinch dirty pennies to buy 1.3 gallons of gas. You can feel rich with an orange in your hands. Never forget: you don’t need money to be happy.
Paint with your friends on a Monday. They just want to be with you. Thank her when she slides her card across the counter. Pay her back when the paycheck comes Tuesday. Only buy toothpaste and hit the books again. Every day is a fight here. Nobody owes you anything. But you are worth something.
Here’s my challenge for the week. Think about where home is. I’d wager that your mind is not entirely here so stop telling yourself that it is. Look candidly at your wounds and accept them. Never forget where you came from.
Where is home to you? What have you struggled with at Stanford? Comment or contact Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.