Essays on Essays: Finding your favorite spot at Stanford

Oct. 24, 2022, 6:02 p.m.

In ‘Essays on Essays,’ columnist Sam Waddoups riffs on an essay he likes. This week’s essay is inspired by E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake.”

If you take a fast enough timelapse of any one spot on Earth, it’ll look crowded. You probably wouldn’t even have to fast forward that quickly to make my favorite quiet pond look like Times Square. There are joggers, families, passers-by. In the timelapse, every time I go, they’ve just left or are just about to come. But still, it’s quiet enough for me to sit and think.

A few years ago, my family moved to a new town. This meant that when I went home, I didn’t have any hometown haunts to return to on those lazy days when 2 p.m. arrives and you need something to make you feel like your day was worth it.

So I’d walk to the pond down the road. 

The first time I went, it was a windless December afternoon. The water was a mirror for the trees and a portal to the sky. I sat on a stump at the edge of the water and just looked for a while. The glassy surface kept as still as I did. No one came to disrupt my illusion. The only ripples came from a fish jumping; the only footsteps were leaves dropping.

The pond became my ritual. I’d walk down the sidewalk-less streets, past the “Proud High School Grad” signs and the town cemetery, until I reached the shore. Then I’d stop and sit and think. Sometimes I brought a book or music. Sometimes, I looked at the turtles and swans (not too closely, mind you: Swans are vicious). Every once in a while, I’d explore the long-abandoned graffitied brick hut whose chain-link fence was easy to get past, but I never found a way in. The pond was my spot.

My illusion was first shattered the next month. The pond had frozen over, and I walked down to find some teenagers playing hockey on a section of ice. Although I’d run into some joggers every once in a while, I’d never found anyone else who came to the pond to stay like me. There were only three or four of them, and they used just a corner of the pond, but no matter where you walked, you could hear their shouts of glee as their skates scraped against the ice. Whenever they were there, I just kept walking. I couldn’t stand the pond belonging to more than one person at a time. I felt sheepish, like they’d think I was stalking them if I stopped, when really, I was just stalking the pond.

The real disillusionment came in the summer. On the first day home after spring quarter, I took the meandering route down only to find lines and lines of cars taking my same route down to the pond. I walked past them, confused, until I got to the pond to find… swimming lessons? I’d passed the unmanned toll booth at the pond’s entrance all through the winter, oblivious to the fact that people actually used it. I realized that the person now in the booth might try to charge me entry to the pond. I heard the kids screaming, “WHAT TIME IS IT, MR. FOX?” as I walked away. “Suppertime,” I said to myself. I turned around and headed home.

This year, I had a TA that happened to have gone to high school just a mile away from the pond in the town where my parents moved. 

“Oh, the pond!” he said. “I used to always go there with my girlfriend. It was kind of our little spot we’d meet up at after school.”

My face fell. It had been his spot, too. He’d probably spent even more hours than I had sitting, throwing rocks into the pond and shooting the breeze with someone he loved.

I had a different spot a long time ago, with my girlfriend at the time. It was really her spot, now that I think of it. She’d found it months before we met, and I’m sure she still goes there now, years and years later. We called it “the Woods,” as if this was the only spot of woods in the whole state. There was a half-broken amphitheater with a stage in the middle where you could sit and talk and watch the leaves, the deer and the oncoming storms. You felt alone there, even as you sat on a stage that had held photoshoots and Shakespeare festivals and religious revivals in its day. Somehow, the place still feels like it’s mine, even though I’m long gone.

As you’re reading this, you might be imagining places of your own. These spots are out of the way enough to feel like they’re our own little gems. They’re beautiful in some way, even if it’s just in the way the light comes through a tree or reflects off a building. They’re embedded with memories of joy and ache and repose. These spots are all over. This campus is cluttered knee-deep in memory. 

Maybe it’s your favorite tree, à la Rory Gilmore, that you have to kick anyone out of when they take it first. Maybe it’s a spot with your friends on Meyer Green, and your main character syndrome is threatened whenever another group starts talking too loudly next to you. Maybe it’s the salamander tunnels behind Lake Lag, and you’re surprised by new graffiti every time. Maybe you’re some kind of masochist and your spot is the 24/7 Lathrop pods.

These places can’t be ours. We don’t own them or even deserve them. They meant something to others before we found them, and they will have meaning to more after us. We’ve got to both hold tight and let go. Find your spot, and make it yours, but keep it all of ours.

This December break, when I go back home, I’ll return once more to the pond. Maybe I’ll find someone sitting there, watching the turtles and the swans in my spot. Maybe I’ll just imagine them overlapping with me in the timelapse of the pond. Maybe it will happen to you one day; maybe you’ll find a frosh in the spot that’s been yours for years. 

For a moment, you might be dislodged from yourself: Have they taken my spot? Are they living my memories? But in that moment, let’s hope you don’t keep walking. There’s room enough for past and present, other and self. Find a place to sit by them and settle down. The spot can be ours.

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