Last semester I only had one regular written assignment a week. Every Thursday night at the Oregon Extension (the OE), an accredited semester-long program that makes its home in an old logging camp nestled in the mountains of southern Oregon, my 25 fellow classmates and I would charge up our little-used laptops and write one page. The assignment was to write a “memo” of our thoughts and feelings from the week that we would read aloud the next morning to a small group in a professor’s living room. The fall’s first memo prompt was: “What are you bringing in your metaphorical suitcase to the OE?” As I start in on my second week back in this college home I thought a memo was in order–one addressing the same topic. Here is what my suitcase, now brimming with Oregon life, now holds.My suitcase has the lingering bits of bark stuck in it from living in a woodstove-heated cabin. The pockets are lined with laughter as my three other cabin mates and I took on life together in its many forms inside our little wooden home. It is full of good food, intentionally and creatively cooked together—loaves of sourdough bread rising on the porch step, exploding vegetable curries, and stacks of cranberry oat bran pancakes on Sunday mornings. If you press your face into the suitcases folds you might still be able to smell Oregon pine from many solitary soul nourishing frolics in the woods. The suitcase is lit by the golden late afternoon West Coast sunlight on the floor of the library where I spent hours reading.
My suitcase comes back heavy; concretely laden with the stack of books I read from cover to cover. Books that ranged from dense theology, a graphic novel, philosophy with Foucault, the dairy of a Holocaust victim and a novel by David James Duncan all sit side-by-side in my suitcase. We met daily in our professor’s homes with steaming cups of tea in hand to discuss the readings. My mind was constantly stretched and on overload. It was the hardest semester of my life, but difficult in a completely new way. I didn’t suffer from the stress that grows into a tense knot in my back building from the moment the syllabus is handed out and not easing till finals. Instead of juggling readings for five different classes we just focused on one topic at a time. That intentional focus allowed for a deep engagement with the topics we were studying. Engagement wasn’t just required in the academic issues we were broaching but with the internal “stuff” that the readings, discussions, living in community or just finally taking time to listen brought up.
My suitcase doesn’t hold a planner or cell phone and the weekends are free from homework. The absence of these things doesn’t represent a lack but a huge gain. Gaining of space—time to take daily walks with friends wandering down the road as our conversation topics wandered, time to just sit on a rock in the woods and think, time to stop by a professor’s home to borrow a teaspoon of nutmeg and end up talking for an hour. My pre-OE college suitcase resembled a circus-balancing act—trying to juggle, keeping ten different balls in the air at the same time and often not leaving any room for the ball labeled “self-care” to get any attention. My new suitcase comes with empty spaces; spaces that I know must only be reserved for taking time to simply be.
In most ways the outside of my suitcase looks pretty much the same, I look like the same Julia walking across campus. But because of taking the time to live with others on a mountain in Oregon, what I now carry with me is entirely different.