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Lessons from the squirrels

The squirrels, oh my, all the squirrels.

Prior to coming to Duke, I already had a general image of what my first-year experience would be like: food at Marketplace, the C1 bus route and bus stops, East Campus dorms. However, not even one person mentioned the absurd number of squirrels on campus. When you set foot on campus, it’s inevitable that you will encounter a squirrel soon or later. It’s like the six degrees of separation law, where every person is connected by six or fewer social relations, except in this case every person is connected by six or fewer sightings of a specific squirrel.

For the past few weeks, I’ve started calling them nicknames, like Sandy Cheeks, Dumb Sandy Cheeks, Slightly Dumber Sandy Cheeks, and please get out of my way i’m trying to run and you’re blocking my path go chew on your acorn somewhere else. I have a love-hate relationship with the squirrels. I was amused at first, then I was slightly annoyed, then, after watching one jump down the trash can in front of Bryan Center, like a brave spelunker (just learned this word!) in search of rotten treasure, I was amused again. 

Inspired by my squirrel sightings, I’ve even started playing soothsayer. Sure, maybe you’ve heard of tasseography or aeromancy, but have you heard of sciurusgraphy (interesting note: the word squirrel comes from the Ancient Greek words σκιά and οὐρά, meaning shadow and tail respectively)? By counting the number of squirrels I spot each morning of the week, I have devised a way of foretelling the fortune that will befall me that particular day. Even numbers mean good luck; odd numbers mean bad luck; and zero means doomsday is here everybody run for your life. 

I would consider them acquaintances, friends even, if some of them don’t dash off immediately at the sight of me, as tends to happen with most of my relationships. However, there is always a lesson to be learned from each encounter, and after the past two months, I’m beginning to think the squirrels have taught me more than I initially realized. 

Ok, fine, I see you reaching for that close tab button. However, I promise reading this is a way better way of spending your 8:30 am chemistry lecture than YouTube food videos. 

Some Sundays, I spend the evening wandering the entirety of West Campus, vast and vacant, and without an exception, I always discover something new on each walk: a tree that leans slightly one way over another, an awkwardly placed trashcan, or Peaches laying near the staircase by Keohane. For the past few weeks, everything has seemed to pass by like a film reel pulled too fast. Orientation week barely feels like a few days ago. I remember the past few months only in snapshots, photo after photo with nothing in between. 

When I’m walking, I always feel like I’m heading somewhere, like I need to be heading somewhere, because everyone seems that same way too. And I’ve spent countless nights mulling this over, trying to be more like this Everyone. I’m just like everyone until I’m not. See, Everyone is cool; Everyone is sexy and smart; Everyone has a friend group; Everyone has found their one and only; Everyone knows how they want to spend their next four years at Duke. Everyone has a direction. Everyone but me. 

I can hear the same words repeating in the back of my mind, repeating until I mistake it for my own voice again: I am clueless and lost. I have no idea who I am, or what I want to do with my life, or why the bathroom lock keeps falling off. How am I supposed to introduce myself to other people, when I barely know how to introduce me to myself?

But then I walk down West Campus, and I see the squirrels darting back and forth. They don’t have a direction, especially not the one chasing in circles holding a piece of bread from Il Forno. Squirrels don’t carry more weight than they need to. They just enjoy the small mouthfuls of victories from each trip. They don’t even concern themselves with time, staring off into the sunset until someone comes along. 

From the squirrels, I’m learning, too, to enjoy the little things during my time at Duke: sitting in the alcoves near the chapel, or enjoying the grass on my way to Perkins. I’m learning to feel the touch of my own weight again.

It’s fine if you don’t want to go to that party or social gathering today. It’s fine if you don’t feel like working or rushing your Chronicle article at 3 am (a small reminder to me: please stop procrastinating). It’s fine if you feel tired. I’ve spent so much time concerning myself with problems I can’t solve, problems I have no control over. 

The squirrels don’t spend hours mulling over where to bury their treasured pinecones, or whether they might lose it to a thief the next day. There’s always another day to live, another day to explore and learn. I may not have found “my people” yet at Duke, or have had the “time of my life” yet, but those things are not my weight to bear. And as a wise squirrel might say, if they could talk: let the winds guide you, and the right things will happen with time.

Spencer Chang is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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