New column delves into eye contact

The walk to 8 a.m. class is the worst one of the day, for any number of reasons. It’s early, of course, and it’s cold – every year I’ve forgotten what twenty below zero feels like. But I wear my warm socks and drink coffee and that’s fine. The walk is long, but I can just call it “bracing” and shrug that one off too. I could list other factors: I’m hungry, it’s dark, my backpack is heavy. But I know that really, the walk is so daunting because it’s the only one that I take truly alone.

When you’re a sophomore in Livedalen, and you live within 200 yards of your food, your classes, your friends, and your job, you can get lost in the thrum of the day. You could easily hear dozens – if not hundreds – of voices within an hour. You learn to tune it out.

But then you move off campus, and you have to reconcile the transition, every day, between silence and vibrancy. You loop from your home to classes, stop by to make use of your reduced meal plan, and then go flinging out again. Your friends are in the relative quiet of the upperclass apartments. Your work is in the basement of the quietest, emptiest dorm on campus. It can get to feel like you’re orbiting, like some wayward astronaut hurtling through the choking emptiness, passing the Earth every so often and finding yourself quietly amazed at the activity, the chaos of life unfolding as you whizz by:  not quite a citizen of the planet anymore but, once in a while, a happy visitor. You wonder how those who used to live in the chaos could ever take it for granted. And you start to treasure the smallest moments of social contact.

My parents taught me quite a bit about communication. Say hello to people. Help them change their tires. Listen to what they have to say, don’t pick fights, let others speak their piece, and also it’s annoying when you interrupt like that. Try to count the ways, every day, that you connect with others, and try to make those connections meaningful. But I had to figure out the eyes for myself. They say so very much, and in so many different ways that I don’t think anyone could ever count. But, sometimes, I try.

On my morning walks, even if I do see anyone, nobody stops to chat or shake hands. At 8 a.m., it doesn’t matter who you are or how warm it is, you just want to get where you’re going. So I can’t expect much for communication. But I can expect at least one thing.

We all want that little moment of recognition. We want people to say hi as we walk past, we want them to laugh or smile at our jokes, share their stories with us, tell us that yes, we are right about our macroeconomic theory and its impact on the works of Ernest Hemingway, and by the way we should be friends. And, if we can’t accomplish all that in the ten seconds we’ve met on the sidewalk, we can at least look each other in the eyes.

My morning pass through the heart of campus is shared with only a few other brave souls, the poor fools who either had to – or, for some unholy reason, chose to – take the earliest class times. We don’t talk often; we may smile. But we always make eye contact and nod, and that connection can mean the world, a point of reference in the silence of a sleeping city. As I come in again from the outer reaches [AG2] I rejoice at the sight of Concordia, but mostly because arriving at Earth means you get to see your fellow Earthlings. And if I have to communicate that by locking eyes as you rush to Theory and Practice of Criticism 215, so be it. I’d love to stop and talk, but we can do this, too, this small but essential wordless conversation: regardless of all else, we are both here, we are both conscious, and in this vast emptiness we can at least prove that the two of us exist.

So much is said with the eyes. This semester, I aim to count the ways.

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