Senior Retrospective: Hannah Ryan

Senior spring is emotional, they warned. You won’t see it coming, they said.

Two months ago I cried over a q-tip. It was the 750th q-tip, identical to the 749th that preceded it, but it was the last q-tip lying in the jumbo carton and it made me feel quite old.

I could insist I bought the box before freshman orientation, but that’s tidier than it is true. Better to say the q-tip carton had been a mindless part of my routine at Vassar long enough that I’d come to, affectionately, take it for granted.

There are milestones: graduation, the 750th q-tip, that I don’t let myself anticipate because I’m deeply suspicious of the conventional, linear progression of time.

It’s weird because time is one of the few things we can trust unconditionally: 60 seconds to a minute, 24 hours to a day and yet we spend so much of our lives in denial of its plodding progress.

The truth is I hadn’t believed I’d use up 750 q-tips and I hadn’t accepted graduation as a sequential moment in time. But holding the last q-tip in my hand, suddenly I realized it was all going to happen short of death or injury: graduation, cover letters, Craigslist, OKCupid, orthopedic shoes, my will. The q-tip illustrated an axiom of life that I devote a number of resources to avoiding: after x number of seemingly arbitrary days, impossibly—the future happens.

So we’re graduating. At the end of the week we will be celebrated and then expected to leave. It’s nothing personal, Vassar asked Meryl Streep to leave (I’ve found contemplating the staggering continuity of this place helps).

Even so, I’m more than a little worried leaving is going to break my heart so I’m looking around and trying to fall in love with something else fast.

I understand that this is and isn’t how it works. I’ve spent four years living blissfully in the present. I’ve been too stimulated here to give the future any more than a cursory consideration, but I’m hoping that’s ok because a long time ago I learned you don’t fuck with this kind of happiness.

When I was younger, I believed my family was one of the unhappy ones. There were certainly moments in which this was true, but as I grew up I realized everything is exhaustingly complicated and it’s better not to make grandiose claims of that kind.

During these moments of adolescent angst, I concluded familial dysfunction was to my advantage. Here’s why: unhappiness is complicated and absorbing where happiness is simple and sedentary.

Like Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Loneliness taught me to ask why and to want the answer. It taught me to read, to think critically and creatively and to empathize to a debatably debilitating and dysfunctional degree.

Before leaving for school, I used to pair up my stuffed animals. My toys were living creatures suffering from locked-in syndrome, obviously, and the thought of leaving one immobile and partnerless was unbearable.

At age seven, I found a severed tulip in my mom’s garden and adopted it/her for five magical days. Incidentally, her name was also Tulip.

The point is I might have wet nursed Tulip had I not been an isolated kid because kids are crazy, but for many years I wanted to escape and that’s the primary reason I saw loneliness as a secret weapon: I wouldn’t get stuck.

I’m not sure why I was so afraid of getting stuck or where this fear originated, but there it stands, just to the left of the center in all my equivocating.

If I came from a happy family, I reasoned, I’d never want to leave and even though I didn’t know why or to where I understood leaving was important.

Now I’ve found a happy family and I find myself more than a little stuck because just like I predicted, part of me can’t bear the thought of leaving you all behind.


—Hannah Ryan is an outgoing senior chair of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center Student Committee.

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