As my time at Cornell comes to an end, I find myself constantly reminded of the most important skill I learned here atop the hill in Ithaca: operating in ambiguity.
I hate when people talk about the weather. It usually tells me that they can’t think of anything better to say. It feels like a cop-out, but I learned to compromise after a few months in Ithaca. And yes, sometimes it’s important to talk about the weather here, especially if you don’t realize you may need to wear shorts to class at 10 a.m. and a snow jacket home at 4 p.m. You don’t know what to prepare for most days here, so you take your best shot, layer up, and see how it goes.
I never much liked the saying, “Ithaca is just 10 square miles surrounded by reality.” What about Ithaca doesn’t count as reality? This is a beautifully strange place, full of the haves and the have-nots, just like every other “real” town. On a given night, I’ve seen university trustees bumped into stumbling peers, and watched aspiring street magicians practice their craft. Sure, not every town (or any town) is as full of leftists looking to create a utopia full of green products, ice sculptures, chili, and porch concerts, but that doesn’t mean this place isn’t reality. It’s ambiguous.
I sometimes see men with large bags or shopping carts full of cans. I always assumed they were homeless, scraping enough together for a bit of food. One morning, I was taking out a bag full of last night’s remnants, and I figured they were of better use to the dread-headed man with his cart and bag than they would be in my dumpster.
After our brief encounter, I was struck that the guy seemed as happy as could be. I was curious. After asking around, I learned that he sends the can money back to Jamaica to help put his kids through school. What a world. I am willing to bet that man did not leave Jamaica planning on settling in Ithaca where he would recycle cans and send the money back to pay for his family. But he seems perfectly happy operating in ambiguity.
Living in the uncertainty that is Ithaca probably prepared me for the real world better than any class at Cornell. Things go wrong, but we’re expected to make it work anyway. That’s life. And thankfully, things go wrong quite often here. Being house manager of a home built in 1902 meant dealing with waterline breaks that caused the ceiling to look like it was raining, but now I know how to turn off the water access to a house.
Driving to the Elmira Airport at 2 a.m. in a blizzard was not ideal, but now I know my car handles well in the snow. It also does well on hills and on potholes, which exist in abundance here. I am constantly told that life will knock me down sometimes, but I’m pretty sure this place has taught me how to stand right back up.
Many of my peers complain about being in Ithaca, and they have plenty of valid complaints. But, even when I would leave here in the worst of spirits, I always looked forward to returning.
While my next hiatus from this strange place on Cayuga Lake will be longer than the ones I’ve known, I expect my next return to be my happiest. Until then, I will keep embracing the unknown and operating in ambiguity.
Brycen Holland is from Coopersburg, Pa., and will be graduating from Cornell University on May 26. He has majored in Industrial and Labor Relations, with a minor in business, and will be working for Baker Tilly in New York City.
East Hill Notes are published in Tompkins Weekly the first and third Wednesdays of each month.
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