By Lindsey Potoff
It’s summer. I’m ten or eleven or twelve years old and life weaves itself from the routine of little league softball in Oak Park, Michigan. To this day, the vividness of my eight years in the sport is swollen with nostalgia: white chalk lines in the infield and the smell of kicked up gravel, the thump of a ball smacking a mitt, the metallic clang of a perfect hit and the weightless feeling in my hands, the fear of stepping up to the plate—a churning mix of giddiness and burden. Before each double header, my mom drove my sisters and I in the heat-soaked minivan and we fulfilled our lucky pre-game ritual of singing along to “I Gotta Feeling” by The Black-Eyed Peas. A win was illuminated with the promise of blue raspberry 7Eleven Slurpees or Baskin Robbins soft serves rolled in color-changing powder. In its own smelly, exhausting way, it was idyllic. It was bodies and laughter, sweat and sugar, warm water bottles and dusty sneakers.
When I got my period in sixth grade, I prayed to God that I’d never experience the horror of an unexpected pool of red on my clothes. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than the shame it would bring, especially on the mandatory, pure white softball pants.
Once, mid-season, we were scheduled for an evening game and, inspired by a winning streak, I invited a friend to come watch. However, thirty minutes of warm-up eventually led to the umpire calling off the game entirely after the other team didn’t show. I later discovered two things: first, that our opponents were all visiting Disneyland, and second, that a vivid red stain had colored my underwear. That night, as I removed my just-short-of-being-stained white softball pants, I pondered the unusual course of events and, for the first time in my life, believed in destiny.
From then on, I saw all the events in the sequence of my life as significant. I started unintentionally comforting myself with mantras like, “Everything turns out as it should in the end.” It was no accident, I believed, to run into family friends when visiting Israel, not chance that I’d have a doctor’s appointment as my high school evacuated due to a bomb threat. There was a purpose to when I injured both of my legs and was forced to temporarily give up endurance running—my whole life I’d been using it to run away from my problems instead of confronting them. But though I was quick to attribute successes and failures to chance encounters, I never viewed fate as more than a fleeting presence. Until I met Emma.
Again, it was summer, and the day was distinguished by an early morning shower and my family’s bittersweet faces in the driveway, sugar snap peas on a plane ride and a hot afternoon of stumbling around campus with a backpack and hiking boots zipped up into a big suitcase. When I arrived at Cornell early for an Outdoor Odyssey trip to the Adirondacks, my stomach squeezed with the coinciding joy and terror of freedom. I was a boat untethered. I was surrounded by the glittering ocean I’d always dreamed of exploring, and yet, it was bigger than I expected. I was alone in myself. I was desperate to drift to an island—only, I couldn’t find any oars.
Emma and I met the first day I arrived on campus, and right away I felt as if she was someone I could trust and see myself growing close to. Naturally, after six days spent carrying sixty-pound packs through the mountains, we felt as if we could laugh and confide in each other by the end. Or maybe we just wanted somewhere to belong. Throughout the first semester of freshman year, Emma and I drifted through each other’s lives in flashes: there were times we didn’t see each other for days, then we’d go skinny-dipping under the stars and rolling down the slope at sunset. She became my closest friend on campus, my biggest supporter, who dreamed of the world for me when my vision grew obscured. I was in awe of the way she lived her life like a movie, writing out her own story. She’d introduce me to new people she’d met, and I found myself unavoidably falling in love with all of them. My life went from routine to splendidly spontaneous and full of hugs and “I love you”s. Having grown up attending a tiny private school and living in a tight-knit, religious community where I felt I didn’t belong, I suddenly felt the overwhelming intimacy of deep, meaningful friendship for the first time.
Meeting Emma and going on the same backpacking trip—in my eyes—had clearly been destiny. But our friendship was not written in the stars, it was painted by our own fingertips. Chance can throw two people together, can plant the seedling of a bond, but external ingredients are required for a sprout to grow, like texts that say “I miss you, I hope you’re doing well,” or late night conversations about boys and God over grilled cheese sandwiches. Fate set us up on a blind date, but we chose to follow through.
For a long time, I thought that if something happened, it was just “supposed to,” and if it didn’t happen then there was a reason for that too, as if there were forces in the world conducting a grand orchestra of meetings and motion and emotion. As if I truly was a boat adrift, absent of paddles and subject to the violent whims of thunderous storms and clapping waves. As if I had no control over myself and the way I felt.
Since starting my second year at Cornell, I’ve come to see that the waters that surround me can only suffocate me when I am heavy. Destiny may designate me a bearer of weights, but it never ruled how long I must hold them, or that I have to carry them alone inside myself. In choosing choice regardless of the cards I’ve been dealt, I simultaneously choose to float across the waves. I step out of the boat. I get wet. But on my back, I float.
It should be made clear, that though my mindset eventually changed, I struggled throughout all of my freshman year. I found myself a magnet for homesickness, weight gain, anxiety, and an overwhelming feeling of not being able to meet expectations that I believed my peers were far surpassing. During that period of my life, I imagined myself walking down a long, dark hallway filled with doors. I heard noises behind the doors—laughter in some, quiet conversations in others. But when I tried turning a handle, it was locked. I walked further down the hallway and tested another handle, only to be greeted by the same fate. After the rejection of those locked doors, I blamed myself. I gazed at the endless array of doorways, all shut tight, and I imagined that they could be opened, but only by someone smarter, prettier, and happier than myself. Where I had attributed most good things in my life to destiny, to badness and discomfort I felt personally incriminated, responsible for my failures.
It was only in my third semester attending Cornell that I understood my mistake. While the first few doors had been locked, many of the remaining entrances had been open, only my fear and insecurity crippled my fingers and prevented me from reaching out. It took a few joyous moments—like joining Cornell’s cycling team and feeling accepted there, and baking apple pie with friends on a late October night—to spark gratitude in my heart. I saw that I was surrounded by so many beautiful things, and I only had to accept them into my life to feel their sunshine. They had been there all along.