This past winter, I spent a month in the mountains of New Mexico, two hours away from the nearest small town and four hours away from Albuquerque. A dozen people, a couple of whom were close to my age, about thirty goats, and many Maremma guardian dogs, cats, ducks, and sheep populated the ranch’s 40 acres. Days were filled with an abundance of goat-related tasks (letting the goats out, milking the goats, making goat cheese, corralling the goats back into the barn, thinking of names for future baby goats, etc.); trying out recipes from a well-worn copy of Irma S. Rombauer’s classic cookbook The Joy of Cooking; or hiking to the top of “The Pyramid,” the highest point in the vicinity, for a fleeting chance at getting a cell signal. But what I remember most vividly were the nights. Except for the few nights when it was overcast, my cabinmate Anna and I could walk the three-quarters of a mile back from the main house to our cabin (“The Bunkhouse”) using only the light of the stars and the moon. Occasionally followed by one of the many outdoor cats, we would depart for our cabin around 7 or 8 p.m., identifying constellations along the way. In the darkness of the night, the mountains formed black outlines in the horizon that surrounded us completely.
I came back from New Mexico not exactly sure what to make of this experience. Surrounded by the familiar rhythms of college life, I felt like I had forgotten the trip completely. Any attempts at recalling the events of that month felt like I was trying to remember a movie about someone else that I had watched years ago. A creature of habit and conformity, I soon became my usual, stressed-out self, shaped by the pressures of papers, exams, social obligations, and anxieties of post-grad plans. I hadn’t expected the experience to magically change me or drastically alter my approach to normal life, but the ephemerality of that month surprised me. It seemed like it had never happened.
As I look back on pictures, I remember what had struck me most: those nighttime walks back to our cabin, where it felt like I could map the contours of reality in the barrier between the sky, dotted with stars, and the dark structures of the mountains and valleys. I thought about my time at Yale, full of friends, conversations, and connections that I had never experienced before, a series of experiences that are also fleeting in their own way.
In her poem “I Looked Up,” Mary Oliver begins her poem by describing a bird she sees in the horizon, and how its unearthly beauty inspires wonder. She writes, “What misery to be afraid of death… What wretchedness, to believe in what can only be proven.” In a time when it felt like I was incessantly making plans for the future or worrying about how good I was at school, her poem prompted me to look up and appreciate the place that I was in.
As I look up at Yale, I see the silhouettes of the college courtyards and the different entryways of Old Campus. I see the intricate checkered ceilings in Sterling Memorial Library and the monogrammed white molding of the Davenport Dining Hall. I appreciate the details I see, appreciate the contours of this ephemeral reality, knowing that it too, will be fleeting.