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Finding an Oasis

Vox Populi

Sometime in April, between hockey and baseball seasons, after a long winter term, and certainly before the sprint towards graduation, my family and I travel to the Maine seashore for the weekend. It's not much, really, just a little family-run hotel on the beach with a pool and cable TV so that I can indulge my pent-up desire to channel-surf that lies dormant when you can only get three channels at home.

John Pfister
John Pfister (upper right) shares conversation with students at an East Wheelock Cluster Tea with the Dean. (Photo by Sarah Benelli)

Our trips aren't that exciting. We stop at the same place, request the same room, take walks along the same beach, visit the same sites, and eat at the same restaurants. One night on this last trip, we decided that this was as it should be. This was our oasis.

In the wild to and fro that has become the busy lives of two academics, our trip to Maine stands out as an island of calm in an otherwise chaotic world. We don't even plan for it months in advance. Like travelers on their way across a vast desert, we just stumble across it and partake of the waters it offers. One moment, we'll be in a spirited discussion of who picks up whom from where and the next minute we'll be feeling the tension slip away from our shoulders as we cross the point of no return somewhere along I-89. Gone is the talk of search committees, e-mails, and difficult decisions we've had to make. Now the conversations are peppered with, "Do you remember when we went...?" and, "When I get out of college, I'd like to..." These are the important moments-moments we can only share when we take the time to listen to each other's voices away from all the other sounds we hear every day.

As an assistant dean in the first-year office, I view listening to others as an important part of my job. When I arrived in the East Wheelock Cluster, I began offering tea and cookies one afternoon a week so students can gather to talk about movies, books, or just tell stories. It's a moment of respite for them in their otherwise hectic lives. From these gatherings, I've learned that an oasis is not necessarily a place or even a thing. It can be an invitation to find some quiet time, seek solace, enjoy the company of good friends, or simply step out of a groove. Now, when someone asks me how things are, I try not to answer by saying how stressed or busy I am. Instead, I seek out one or two good things that happened recently (and there are many) and I talk about them. The effect is profound and very much like that point of no return on my family's annual trip to Maine. I watch the stress drop from their shoulders and usually they tell me something great that's happened to them. Both of us find respite in that moment and, having found it, we're ready to travel on.

Many of us at Dartmouth have found these moments of calm, these oases. It might be a jog during lunch, a crossword puzzle that begins the day or, like me, a woodworking magazine that I carry around next to my laptop to remind myself of how special it is to steal away for a few minutes at my lathe or table saw. But oases are hard enough to find for ourselves. The greater challenge is to help others find them.

By JOHN PFISTER, Assistant Dean of First-Year Students and Senior Lecturer in Psychological and Brain Sciences

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08