The Places I’ve Carved Out For Myself

Third Prize in the 2022–23 Writing Contest

By Emma Janssen, ’24

The stone balcony

When I returned to Cambridge this April, the sun had finally crested over its long winter journey, and spring had flushed over the countryside. The long cathedral spires jutting out from behind the walls of my college threatened to pop gossamer clouds hung in the sky, and weeds were jutting up all over the city’s meticulously manicured lawns.

I’ve gotten to befriend the seasons here, in a way that I haven’t before. I think it’s a simple matter of time — I have spent hours, days, months in nature’s presence, and we’ve learned to become familiar with each other.

Now, I write sitting on a friend’s old stone balcony. This building was finished in the 1700s, and I imagine students then, just like us, would sit here, propped against the windowpanes while reading and writing late at night. Above us: a slate of black sky, against which the sound of frogs from the river’s muddy banks echoes. Everything is springtime, from the pink on my cheekbones to the alignment of the constellations above us. I’m leaving you in just over a month, Cambridge. All your lungfuls of cold air and clots of daffodils. Instead of thinking too hard about that, I’ll write about this place I’ve found myself in, and tell you the story of the places I’ve carved out for myself.

The Cam

I met the river quickly after arriving in Cambridge, introduced to it by two new friends, members of my college’s boat club. The three of us piled into a heavy wooden rowboat, which we took clumsily down the Cam in warm afternoon light. My relationship with the Cam is a complicated one. I wake up before dawn four mornings a week to row down it. Half the time, it feels like I’m fighting with the river. Instead of pushing water, I feel as though I’m shoveling through cement, the muscles in my back aching to gain just one inch of ground against the current. And then, there are the serendipitous moments, where my oar slices through the water, the boat skims the surface, a swan takes off above me, we cross the finish line of a race and splash our faces with the murky water in celebration. Along the six kilometer stretch of river on which we train, I’ve tracked the changing seasons. In autumn, our boat cuts through clusters of red leaves newly fallen from the trees, and the light slants directly into our eyes at sunrise. In winter, I fight back hypothermia with half a dozen layers as we row through hail and snow flurries. In the early mornings, the earth along the riverbank is coated with delicate frost, and spiderwebs draped along bushes are white and icy. Now, spring has brought the river into teeming life. On the surface, waterbugs skim and spiders dart back to the safety of shore. On the muddy bottom, thick-leaved plants sway in the wake of our boat. The air smells of cloying pollen and blossoms as we take heavy inhales, exhausted from our workouts. The brown cows are back to chewing their cud alongside the river, right where my coach ran directly into one in October, too distracted by critiquing our technique.

The house on Castle Street

Looking in through the windows, I see dozens of people moving through the warmly lit space, which every Friday night is converted into a dining room for 25-50 people. When I first began going to Shabbat at the house on Castle Street, I wasn’t quite sure of where to sit and when to be silent. But after many Fridays, I learned the specific comforts and routines of the house. Now, a group of us always gather in the downstairs kitchen to gossip with the rabbi’s wife and play with their youngest daughter. We bring up plates of food, fill glasses with sweet wine, and slice warm pans of fresh baked cakes. Over salads and roasted vegetables and challah, conversation bubbles. I debate math pedagogy with the freshman across from me, a PhD in religion quizzes the rabbi’s 9 year old daughter on world capitals, I explain the intricacies of crochet to a data scientist and a Hebrew literature professor. In winter, the house on Castle Street is the place I go to warm my cold fingers, to hear songs and prayers filling a room, and to stay up until 2 a.m. arguing about literature and philosophy.

Dr. K’s office

I’ve learned that a certain level of eccentricity is permitted when you’ve proven that you’re brilliant enough to deserve it. When you’ve been awarded medals by your home country and discussed municipal sewage policy with the likes of Aimé Césaire, like Dr. K has, you can do whatever you’d like. When Dr. K invited myself, a friend, and another professor, Dr. C, to his office for a postcolonial studies seminar last quarter, I accepted immediately. Before entering his office, where he practices yoga and stores over 20,000 books, you must remove your shoes, so as not to dirty the plush white carpets. The whole room is white and cream colored — even the books lining his walls seem to follow theme, from the old French paperbacks falling apart along their seams to the large art books Dr. K often pulls out and pages through during our conversations. It was there, sitting on one of his wooden benches, elbows propped on the table, my feet (adorned with cat socks) not quite reaching the floor, that I felt my mind open in ways that I forgot it could. I asked for an answer on the Fanon we were reading, and Dr. K gently told me that failing to find answers is the entire point of the work we had set ourselves to. ‘The colonial world sought to compartmentalize things, no?’ He asked me. ‘So then anti-colonial writing, by necessity, confounds attempts to categorize. There is no answer.’ We read a piece by Derek Walcott, and I found myself starting to make room in my chest for unknowable things. And then, a poem by Césaire that complicated things further. We went far over the pre-scheduled hour, and stayed discussing things until late, the four of us gathered around Dr. K’s table, all in socks and bare feet, as the sky darkened outside and the constellations found their places above us.


Emma Janssen, Class of 2024, participated in the yearlong direct enrollment program at Trinity College, Cambridge, through UChicago.