Arriving off the farm in South Carolina to Williams College in the far northwestern reaches of Massachusetts, I was met with a strange weather phenomenon.
My immediate reaction when presented with the age-old option of flight or fight was an unfortunate mixture of both.
I set out in a dead sprint for the car and, once there, decided to solve the crisis by pulling on a pair of thermals underneath my sandals instead of shaking the snow dust off my feet, cranking the heat and wheeling out of Williamstown.
I couldn’t locate any alternative shoes in my pack. A jacket hadn’t quite seemed to make the cut either.
As I gratefully discovered in the days that followed, however, the good people of Williams College believed in donating their discards.
And at that low point in my pilfering career, I was not beyond believing that such donations were an equal opportunity employer.
And so outfitted, college got off to its start.
And for reasons perhaps best addressed in another cartoon that I can put off for a good long while, I got off to my decline.
About every second hour, I would consider my alternatives—writing in poverty, farming in hunger, working at the god#@*% McDonalds the next town over, for heaven’s sake anything but this soul crushing piece of business at hand— and fleetingly think to myself, ‘McCullough, you’ve never been one not to quit something, now have you, old chap?’
But a surprising thing had happened during my time at Williams. I began to listen to what people said.
So I made a retreat to my books.
The retreat became so total that I progressed from gracing the library with my presence from open to close to setting up permanent, secluded camp in my dorm room’s library.
There were days when I wouldn’t have a conversation with anyone. Classroom discussion didn’t count towards the tally.
The only hang-up for my working-without-falter-and-with-extreme-amounts-of-desperation plan was my computer.
Writing essays every week, the whole lack of page breaks on the Netbook’s rip-off of Microsoft Word turned out to be a serious obstacle. With my job as a library clerk, however, I saw my opening.
Considering that the loan period for the laptops was six hours and a night was at least eight, considering that the laptops had no security strip and could easily be shuttled out the door and to the dorm library, considering that I wrote best early in the morning well before the library opened—considering all of these things—I figured I could just take a laptop out of the library without checking it out and return it my next shift.
This laptop laundering scheme worked brilliantly for months until I got a call from security.
Deep in the dark recesses of the Hopkins tower, lay Chief of Security.
Chief of Security believed in intensive interrogation tactics:
After that sentencing, I dragged myself across the lawn to the library to receive the termination I deserved.
Suffice it to say that Chief Security was not disappointed with Chief Librarian’s termination tactics.
As the years went by at Williams, I became slightly more sartorially prepared for the weather. Scarves replaced tank-tops and my mom’s old hand-me-down boots took the front row in the closet, with the sandals thrown somewhere in the dark reaches to languish.
Emotionally, however, I seemed increasingly unable to deal.
[Post-Security showdown and Grand Style librarian blow-out, I resumed my spot at one of the library’s desktops, one that presumably could not be easily uprooted, stuffed in a sack and hauled out of the vicinity.]
During junior year, I went to the health center, feeling like death.
I must have looked like it too because they immediately took me in, hooked me up to an EKG and started running blood tests.
My heart rate was down to 40 beats per minute, my red blood cell count, dangerously low, and I had a mere hundred and eight pounds on my 5’4’’ frame.
Life was somewhere on the cusp between the end I hoped for and the half-life that persists.
In my visits to the Health Center, I found a friend in the PA that took care of me. I told her a lot of things I didn’t tell any of my peers.
I guess you know you’re super depressed when you think depression is your most defining—and possibly your most precious—characteristic.
It didn’t occur to me then.
I only knew that the roads I rode my bike on in Williamstown were full of a green-beautiful I’d never seen before, fed as it was by snow-fall, blanketed as it was by a furl of bachelor buttons and purple loosestrife on fire with the low-light of northeastern evenings so flooring for their finiteness—and for the darkness they replaced.
I only knew that I saw all this—loved all this, even—but that something was still terribly wrong with me.
After all, what was wrong with Williams College?
The library had all the books you could ever want, and if they didn’t happen to have one you truly craved and absolutely needed, you could ask to have it delivered via Interlibrary Loan in a few days. And while asking for such a favor might result in
somebody whose name included War in the surname going on the rampage at the Science Library or
getting your windpipes closed down by the lady at the Humanities desk
you still got your books.
And the place was chock-full of truly kind and brilliant professors who opened worlds to you.
And the architecture of the place was true New England handsome, sturdy in its dignity, lovely in its orderliness, disregarding a few unfortunate buildings added in that dark, dark architectural period known as the Seventies, and motivational tid-bits were even etched into the stone around campus.
And yet, all of these things only made me feel worse. Who was I not to embrace such gifts, not to love this college, not to thrive in a place built to make twenty year olds do just that?
Three weeks into my Junior year spring semester, four months after my close friend’s suicide and the shadows that still stood attendant, I dropped out of school and found myself abroad in the wide world of Williamstown.
On an abandoned couch in one of the dorms, I contemplated my future.
It did not seem bright.
A few months in and a few too many sandwich sellings later at the local cafe in Williamstown, the old voice started up again, suggesting that maybe I had to finish college. As I started the readmission process, I was met with a few obstacles.
After an initial moment of shock in in which I grappled with the idea that I could be rejected for readmission on the basis of my psychological health and not my academic readiness, I set out to explain my reasoning for coming back to school.
The rationale was weak. I’d done more than half of an often grueling Williams education, I wanted their diploma out of sheer sore pride and for its prestige, and I didn’t actually want to come back at all, a point I managed to get around with some of the very bulls*%#ing I learned so well during my time at Williams.
I was still sick as a dog. I wouldn’t have let myself back in if I were them.
But they compromised and told me that if I met with a school psychologist, if I showcased at least one of the mental capabilities I laid claim to, if I met the baseline standards of sanity, which is to say, not falling quite so neatly under categories of craziness outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, they would potentially reconsider their rejection of my reapplication.
I went to see the school psychologist.
Perhaps it was my anger at being told such a thing after seven months of dealing with death that steeled my eyes into sanity, but after a bit of wrangling, I got my way, with the plan that I would study away first and return to Williams later.
And so, after a semester spent in the heartland of Iowa, taking writing classes and discovering, to my immense and exceedingly baffled surprise, that I could make friends, I returned to Williamstown.
Spring Semester, the dog of winter, 10:00 pm, ice, snow, stars:
I sit outside of the house I’m renting a room in. The thermostat downstairs is set at 50 degrees. The kitchen table has the residue of at least five years of red sauce (spaghetti, spaghettios, sausage and spaghetti, anything with truly sticky and stain-rendering qualities such that putting a book down on the table involves a struggle to peel it back up), red sauce being Housemate Numero Uno’s preferred meal of choice and likewise, Housemate Numero Tres’s drunk meal of choice and also the amount of time Housemate Numero Uno has been holed up in this decrepit, moldering, astonishingly depressing establishment.
Lately, Housemate Numero Uno and I have been engaging in a Battle of the Will.
I turn the house lights on.
Seconds later, he emerges from his lair to turn them off.
I find this battle unconscionably psychologically bruising. The house is so dark, day and night, that I give myself a welt in between the eyes, attempting to navigate the baseboards without rousing Housemate Numero Uno to remind me to be more responsible with the lights.
Perched on top of the radiator in the above-described Kitchen of Petrification during the spring of that year, I attempt to read and study and believe that this is what I came back for, this life of the mind, this search for restoration within the old haunts and hurts of beauty and sickness and deep disbelief in the sanctity of going on with life that was Williams for me.
But if redemption was the storyline I sought, if I wanted to take the gaping holes in the wall of my past there and make them into something more closely resembling chinks, such that the cold that came through was just a reminder of what had been instead of what still was, serving as contrast, then I was sorely disappointed.
I left for my boyfriend’s in Ithaca or my sister’s in Boston every weekend, making Williams into the most unlikely of suitcase colleges.
And when spring finally came and my sister arrived to help me pack up and leave for a final time, I was far from conflicted in my joy.
I was elated.
A year later and one two skip a few ninety nine one hundred seemingly harrowing steps towards getting off the examining bench and into the upright position far away from Williamstown, I find myself unexpectedly making the old drive down the Massachusetts Turnpike.
And after making peace with the alarming noises emanating from the bus anytime it made it over the 55 mph Marker of Bus Doom, I felt something familiar streaming towards me.
And there again was the quiet glory. There again was the astounding green somehow made from a winter’s worth of grey and ice. There again was the old, deep pocket of loss sewn within it all, that string of sadness spooling from its center, my center, that brought with it the ghosts of grief past to acknowledge and say how-do-you-do, it has been a little while.
And within the time of those long looks of re-acquaintance, of remembering what it is like to look one another in the eye and say, oh it is blue there, deeper blue than I even remembered, the sun fell down and left us with its shards.
And that was light enough.