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Columns

Strange Homecomings

By Talia M. Blatt
Talia M. Blatt ‘23, an Integrative Biology concentrator, lives in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

It is finally Thanksgiving — a time to celebrate and express gratitude for our most familiar faces. And yet, as per usual, I’m thinking about strangers.

I got coffee this past weekend with two of my closest friends from high school. We all stayed home this fall, but hadn’t seen one another much — school accelerated, as did the pandemic. Aside from our masks and the distance between our chairs, I felt as though I was catching a glimpse of some non-pandemic alternative universe, where we were just old friends home from college, catching up.

It could have been a comforting thought, but it only made me wistful and nostalgic. In high school, we would lie on the floor in someone’s basement most weekends and talk for hours. My memories from those Sunday afternoons are largely tactile — my fingers entwined in the shag of a carpet, the warmth of a head in my lap, sesame seed crackers and pear caught in my teeth.

Sitting outside a Starbucks on a cold weekend created an ugly, jarring sterility. We fluttered through neutral topics of conversation: “It’s cold out!” “Watch anything good lately?” “‘How’s your family?” My fingers were too numb to feel anything.

I am grateful for much this Thanksgiving, but I am mourning a loss of that sense of homecoming. I’ve lived the last eight months in my childhood bedroom, but I’ve also been forced to distance from the friends that constitute my adolescence. That dissonance — the regression of being at home coupled with the unfamiliarity and surreality of what home has become — has left me unsettled and restless this week. I wander around my house, finding my way with my eyes closed and feeling like a guest who has overstayed her welcome.

When I first started writing this column, aware of how fortunate I was to be safe at home with my family, I wanted to make a sort of photo album of my interactions with strangers during the pandemic. I missed that daily thrum of overheard conversations, jostled shoulders, unplanned eye contact, and all of the other once-ubiquitous reminders that we are surrounded by people we do not know and never will. My most sustained gripe with quarantine became its predictability: an ecosystem without the joys of strangeness.

But I’ve realized that I placed an artificial ceiling on the stranger phenomenon; people and even places we are close to can become strangers again. Or rather, the world and time can conspire to make us feel alienated from them.

That alienation sounds bleak, but I have begun to find it generative.

The idea of finding the familiar strange is a cornerstone of cultural anthropology. In 1956, cultural anthropologist Horace Mitchell Miner wrote “Body Ritual Among The Nacirema” as a parody of the way Western anthropologists approached studying non-Western cultures. He turned the othering eye inwards, describing Americans as a “magic-ridden” people he termed the “Nacirema” — (spoiler:) “American” spelled backwards. He detailed rituals like visiting the “holy-mouth-men” (dentists) and using “charm-boxes” (medicine cabinets) to store “potions” (medicine). It was a facetious way to promote epistemological distancing: the tactic of looking at what is most familiar and intimate, and then asking ourselves what we can learn from making it feel strange.

I wonder if this anthropological lens has interpersonal utility. This Thanksgiving, the pandemic has made life sufficiently weird; instead of striving to make it normal — a dead-end I found outside Starbucks — we might continue the inversive experiment, and treat ourselves and our families as Miner’s Nacirema.

For those of us who have been at home with the same people for months, I see this as a welcome opportunity to interrupt patterns of engagement that feel routine to the point of tedium, and try to find magic and novelty, rather than irritation, in the idiosyncrasies of our loved ones.

I am reminded of a beautiful neologism that describes how we interact with strangers: “Sonder” refers to the sudden, transcendent experience we have when we remember that everyone we see is leading a life as complex, vibrant, and bizarre as our own. Sonder explains our willingness to offer strangers the benefit of the doubt, and give them a mystery and a dimensionality we might not afford to the people we think we know best.

I declared a concentration in Integrative Biology last week, so I find myself thinking about sonder in biological terms. Chimps, our closest extant relatives, could not sit side by side on an airplane for hours, one of my biology professors pointed out in a recent lecture — they would kill one another. But we can, and we do it remarkably well; unlike chimps, we are able to recognize the dignity of every individual as they exit the plane safely, even if we have no idea where they are headed.

We are able to provide strangers with such a degree of respect because we have the humility to recognize that we don’t know what they’re dealing with. Thanksgiving, a holiday notoriously characterized by familial conflict even in better years, is a time we would benefit from extending that tolerance inwards — making strangers of the people we’re quarantining with and even our own selves.

When I interact with a stranger, I appreciate the moment we have together as something precious and precarious. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by how many decisions and conditions, down to an atomic level, had to happen exactly as they did for me and another person to exist in the same space concurrently.

As I stay home, rather than come home, this Thanksgiving, I will do my best to treasure the people I am with in the same way.

Talia M. Blatt ‘23, an Integrative Biology concentrator, lives in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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