Semester abroad sparks ‘shear’ joy

The author poses with a friendly ewe in Cumbria. These lovable and docile creatures are quite pleased to provide visitors to the farm with a slower-paced experience. Courtesy of Lindsay Craig.

My first hour back at Vassar had me feeling perturbed by the Deece’s new name (GoCo? Geece?) and slapped in the face with the arctic conditions. I studied in Edinburgh, Scotland for the fall semester, and returning left me in a state of perpetual surprise. What struck me most upon returning to Vassar—aside from the deficiency in Scottish brogue, quality tea and free health care— was the insane hustle: a phenomenon so normal to me for two years, but now utterly shocking coming back. Sure, the resources on campus are abundant and professors incredible, but there’s a reason our breaks last so long.

Vassar life falls prey to the productivity narrative widespread in the Northeast, particularly concentrated in the New York City working world. It says you are what you produce, and that’s exhausting. Campus dining is unlimited, and so are things to do in a given 18-hour period spent awake: class, homework, org leadership, work-study, socializing and finally (maybe) sleep. So here I am, gazing out my sunny window in Strong, wrestling with this new quasi-Scottish self, trying to figure out how to reconcile the playful person I became abroad with the over-scheduled one I am at Vassar.

We’ve been raised to rush. Slowness isn’t just boring; it’s painful. For us metropolitan Americans, waiting is reserved for stoplights and food lines. Forced breaks are occupied by furious scrolling through the daily news and rapid replies to friends who are probably accustomed to your delayed responses. Our walking isn’t strolling, but rigorous and intentional. If the pedestrian in front is too slow for your liking, you pass and avoid eye contact. Cars tailgate to suck out every inch of road space. Runners and cyclists zoom about, spending energy they can’t afford to waste. For most Americans from around here, myself included, slowness is terrifying. I think it makes us feel more alone and irrelevant. Action hints at a life of purpose.

And so does routine. After three years on the premises, it’s easy to become an automaton bound to work and regiments. Maybe it’s more comfortable living in a fully-stocked bubble. My mom calls campus a nursery school for adults. Like a friend joked at dinner on Wednesday, Vassar would be a great setting for a dystopian novel where students work and don’t play, not knowing there’s more to life outside.

Removed from my usual environment, I learned the art of wandering and the pursuit of intentional unproductivity. At Vassar, I bolt directly to Rocky 200 for a lecture or rocket to the AFC to work out with the vigor of an Olympic speed walker. I rarely leave campus, except for the occasional excursion to Crafted, which packs more caffeine in their drinks than the Deece ever could in its coffee.

In Edinburgh, however, wandering became my always anticipated quotidien time of aimless adventure. The nooks and crannies I stumbled upon became the most endearing parts of the city’s character. These gems were quirks beyond the tourist’s gaze which I joyfully (and unexpectedly) embraced.

Wandering led to me to a cat café, where I de-stressed by spending time with purring cats after my last final of the semester. I even ran into a friend from high school while walking along a new path up Blackford Hill, one of three scenic overlooks of the city. I discovered a fish market with the best salmon in Scotland by taking an alternate route home from class. I came across my favorite village in Scotland—North Berwick—by arriving at the train station and choosing a random destination with a friend willing to do the same. We didn’t see puffins, but now I know where to find them.

Featured above are a few members of the fold, veritably striking poses in their majestic sheeply splendor as they graze. The beautiful English countryside setting of the farm serves as an outstanding backdrop for the study of intentional unproductivity. Courtesy of Lindsay Craig.

Meandering made me feel whimsical and open. It helped me to realize how little I know about the world. I now know that letting the universe unfold as it has for thousands of years is better than asserting myself. One of my favorite times of the day was making the short trek to the heart of the city to walk around the Princes Street Gardens, simply to be there. It felt significant to gaze at the Edinburgh Castle, knowing that it existed hundreds of years before I did and would continue to exist for many years without me. It really reminded me of my place in time.

Part of my “letting go” education came from a homestay with a couple who owned an education center and sheep farm in the Lake District of Northern England. In Cumbria, England there are more sheep than people, and the population is aging. The old people and sheep infuse the region with a quiet wisdom. Five other university students studying abroad with me were hosted by a long-married couple, far removed from the bustle of Edinburgh and London.

The WiFi password didn’t work, but I think they secretly miswrote it to force us to disconnect from the outside world for a weekend. I wish I could say it was just what I needed, to sit back, reflect and enjoy the beauty, but in reality I spent three days fighting withdrawal symptoms from the drug of activity. Our hosts were experts at living slowly—a lifestyle many at Vassar, myself included, purposely avoid.

The couple let this easeful pace structure their farm, which is fashioned for individuals with physical differences in strength and motor skills. Feeding the flock took a bit longer with these crowds, but the sheep were apathetic to the rate of sustenance distribution. We might count sheep for our insomnia, but they just nap and graze all day, to avoid the exhaustion of doing too much at once.

For these sheep keepers, excessive action equated to exhaustion. They were experts at letting life unfold. The mayor of a seven-hundred-year-old English town called Appleby-in-Westmorland told us that running into a friend on the street would result in hours of talking and laughing. I barely stop to say hi to a friend on my way to lunch, but the residents of Appleby-in-Westmorland make those interactions the focal points of the day. Yes, they are retired, but I think they are onto something with their priorities.

Like wandering, there is a distinct beauty in intentional slowness—it made Cumbrians non-anxious and available. There’s a humanness in being unimportant enough to let the world unfold without superintending its unfolding. I’m trying to elicit those lessons for the remainder of my time here. Be patient with me though; I have to run to class.

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