Every night this academic year, I fall asleep underneath a cutout of a bowl of salad layered on top of a photo of a hillock sprouting with magnificent red flowers. Above them is a bookmark of a cat looking out a window, and next to that, Claude Monet's lavender-shadowed interpretation of the British Houses of Parliament. Underneath, a picture of someone’s eyes crinkled closed. Nearby, a Frida Kahlo still life of coconuts whose dark circular eyes are shedding small tears behind a Mexican flag that reads, “pintó con todo cariño, Frida Kahlo.”
In the morning, I wake up facing the rest of my collage. Describing the whole thing would take up far too many words, so I’ll put it this way: scraps of paper fill every wall. My mom calls these scraps ephemera — “items of collectable memorabilia, typically written or printed ones, that were originally expected to have only short-term usefulness or popularity,” according to the Oxford Dictionary —and that’s the closest word I can use to describe it all. Cutouts of art from museum brochures and old calendars, posters ripped from hipster magazines, receipts that I get my friends to doodle on, block prints and postcards bought off the street and at art fairs.
My collection of this ephemera began eight years ago, when I was living in my first dorm room. I was 13 and at boarding school, facing the challenge of cultivating a home in a foreign environment. Like any freshman, I felt utterly uncentered, doggy-paddling against the school’s frenetic intensity. After my first couple of weeks, my room was a mess, so I took a long Saturday morning to pull my clothes off the floor and direct some more effort into the still-foreign space.
I sliced up some magazines, printed out a few photos from my camera roll with a sticker printer I’d just received for my birthday, and stuck it all above my bed. The mere presence of color, and the memories each small picture held, felt like a balm — something consistent and bright and mine to return to. With a couple scraps of paper, I’d planted roots.
Collaged with mementos of where I’d been and what I’d seen, my walls reminded me of all the beauty that I’d come across. Walking into my room simmering with stress about the test I felt like I flunked or the article I was struggling to write, I would pause and sit with those vivid memories. To this day, this act grounds me back into the understanding that my life is a series of moments, and the one I’m in is the one I’m in. It is full of feeling — whatever kind of feeling that is — and it is precious, and it will pass.
After that Saturday morning my freshman year, I felt nested enough in my room to invite new friends over. The warmth emanating from my walls yielded their own warmth, and my room became a base for my group of friends.
But my freshman year room was only my first draft. I resolved to hold onto every single scrap that represented a moment I’d found myself in — ticket stubs, playbills, the business cards that lovely taxi drivers gave me after long conversations. By my sophomore year, all four walls were papered. Thus began the ritual of the ephemera going up for seven months, and coming back down to hibernate in my best friend’s garage during the summertime — only to reemerge with fuller, more colorful force in the fall.
In senior year, my best friend and I lived together. A combination of our collections, the room reached its peak as a vibrantly cozy haven. People were constantly buzzing in and out, lying on the ground or on our pushed-together beds, attempting to study or write essays but mostly joking around and gossiping. We had lots of wall space that year, and I was committed to filling every bit of it. I’d finally finished plastering every spot of the window nook a couple days before we left for spring break.
Then the pandemic started and we never returned to that wonderful room. We received our belongings in haphazardly-packed boxes, with our precious collection completely gummed together. After lockdown, my best friend and I spent an entire day in her garage peeling each piece of paper apart. There were many casualties. So, during my gap year I invested more of my money into museum posters and postcards, mementos of all the wondrous art I’d been lucky enough to see.
When I arrived at Harvard, I found a kindred spirit in my freshman year roommate, who was equally flush with ephemera. Our collection filled every corner of our room and common room, turning it into a chaotic little jewel box. Living together our sophomore year, we were given our largest canvas yet — and both rooms were once again completely covered. (Unfortunately, sweaty parties loosened the decorations from their spots at a pace that my repairing could never quite keep up with).
I’ve moved into my own room this year, and for the first time in many years, it’s just me and my ephemera. I couldn’t find the time to decorate for three weeks, and every day I went to bed restless. But once a free Saturday rolled around, I invited friends to come sit on my couch as I covered every wall. By Monday, the room dripped with color and texture and shape, and I finally felt like I’d arrived home.
We each have a particular amount of time on earth. I risk sounding trite by saying this, but I find it to be a very sobering thought. We organize our days by punctuating them by sleep and counting how many days have passed since the start of the month. But really, what we’re doing is setting a framework onto a given stretch of time that we have to be inside these bodies, with the consciousness that we have.
Throughout high school and now in college, I, and everyone around me, are in a perpetual rush. Weeks blur into months, and we forget what we even spent our time doing. Our thought patterns revolve around what we could have done better before, and what we have to do next time. Halfway through this semester, I’m starting to sense burnout singing my edges. It’s becoming very easy to lose sight of the preciousness of each moment.
I’ve found that the contents of my room, the place in which I begin and end each hectic day, profoundly affect my outlook. My collage brings to mind precious experiences that I’d have otherwise forgotten. It’s like a library of my life, which challenges the ephemerality that my memories can easily take on.
Right now, I’m in the thick of midterms season. I fall asleep each night thinking about the millions of things I have yet to do. But when I open my eyes in the morning, I am met with a patch of ripples, with a doodle that my friend and I drew on a ferry-ride at dusk. A ripped-out notebook page on which I inked the words “here and now,” using a calligraphy pen that the owner of my favorite cafe had lent me. My mom’s postcards, a flier I picked up at a protest. The package of a pistachio dessert this guy down the hall gave me because he knew it would be the most incredible thing to eat while stoned (it was). I am reminded of the tenderness of people around me, of the forces of creativity that give way to such complexity, of the fierce richness and beauty that flourishes in this stretch of time that I call a life.
— Associate Magazine Editor Sam E. Weil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.