College Stories 2011: That Feeling

That Feeling

by Chris Nickell

I am convinced most people feel it.

We just lack a common vocabulary to talk about it. Combining the few words we do have into one general catharsis-awe-pathos-wonder-love-God-humanity-connection feeling comes awkwardly close, but I find my experiences since coming to Carolina have given me a much richer — if less succinct — vocabulary.

I had a rough time in the advanced electromagnetism sequence with everything but the physics. My professors for Physics 311 and 312 were eccentric at best, I knew nobody in the class, and I was just a hatchling toddling my way through the wide world of college. Having argued my way into these classes as a first-year, I was determined to do well. Sometimes an errant tensor would throw me for a theoretical loop, but diligent preparation for lectures and tests brought most of the material within reach. I loved leaving numbers behind in favor of powerful, more aesthetic symbols. They made the material more cohesive, but sometimes I still had trouble seeing the relation between topics. We finally put it all together at the end of the second semester. Quirky Professor Dolan spent a few lectures preparing us with background in relativity and four-vectors so we could make the last leap. The night before the pivotal lecture, it happened as I read through the textbook. My mind at the heels of the trail of equations, slowing here and there only to fill in gaps in the algebra, I arrived at the most elegant line of mathematics I had ever seen. The penultimate equation in the book combined all four Maxwell equations we had studied for the past year into one simple statement. My mind’s eye saw through the window of elegant human notation, glimpsing a beauty embedded deep within the fabric of our universe, causing that feeling to cascade down over me.

In high school I learned how to do. At Carolina, I was learning how to feel.

Dusk falls on the dusty plateau. I survey the city of Cochabamba, sprawled out in the valley below, my home for the past 10 weeks during my internship with the Foundation for Sustainable Development. My boys work through the final activity of the afternoon, weighing and valuing recycling deposits in preparation for the neighborhood collection center they would run in a few months. “¡Oye, Cris, ven a ver!” They call me over to check their work, and I see practice paying off: Their math is right. Opening a bottle of cane-sugar cola to close the day, I distribute the last of the treats I had picked up at La Cancha, the enormous open air market in the heart of the city. Roger, the sharpest of the bunch, asks me point blank, “When are you leaving?” In two days. “Why do you have to go?” It’s been more than two months since I’ve seen my family and I miss them terribly. “Tell them to come here.” I also have to go back to university, bud, and I can’t move that here. Besides, Carla and Erlán, my Bolivian coworkers, they’ll finish up the training with you. You’ll like them, I promise. Roger frowns, piercing me with his intense brown eyes, and says, “Pero no los queremos, Carla y Erlán. Queremos tú.” They don’t want to work with Carla and Erlan. They want me, un gringo. As 10 weeks of vivid memories rush through my mind, I fight back the tears. That feeling overwhelms me from inside out.

Too many to count but never the same, I find nuances but the feeling’s essence never changes.

Only the lone violin line leaping through the texture belies the abrupt shift out of the lazy adagio. Hillary, Noelle and I exchange knowing glances. Even though it is our first encounter with Brooklyn Rider string quartet, instinct tells us what to expect. It has been dimly palpable all evening, a shiver or a silent gasp. We turn our eyes back to the performers, sensing four become one. Pulsing with rhythmic intensity in 11-12-11-12-beat phrases, the bows come down in controlled strokes across strings. The two years of Memorial Hall ticket stubs and programs have primed my body for this experience. In familiar response to the rising intensity, I feel my heartbeat quicken and my legs tense, my toes still tapping away in tempo. The energy on stage charges the air around our heightened ears as the cello drops down from its frenetic fifth-position finger work to ground the ensemble. The entwined violins launch to a soaring climax, and at last it rushes through me, flowing from deep within softly brushing my arms as it curls up around my shoulders narrowing through my neck into that space around my crown.

I have come to crave this feeling, whatever its form, because of how often I experience it since coming to Carolina. Yet just as I could not live without it, I would not want it with me all the time, for fear its magic might wear out. Some day soon I will have to find new sources of it as I leave this place where I learned to feel. But for now I am content to cherish it as it comes.

Chris Nickell, a rising senior, is a vocal performance and Arabic studies double major with a physics minor from Pittsburgh. He hopes to pursue a career in music.