A Response to “Cullowhee Culture”

Dear Editor,

This is an open letter in response to Matthew Kennedy’s letter to the editor of March 7 entitled “Partying, Drugs, and Wal-Mart: A Concerned Student Addresses Cullowhee Culture.”

My name is Chris Lenzo, and I am an instructor in the sociology department. I read your letter to the editor addressing the culture of Cullowhee with sadness. You communicated really well a dilemma that I am sure is shared by many students here: what to do in your non-studying time. I thought about your letter in a couple of different ways, and I decided to write my response to the school newspaper. Here it is.

First of all, you are definitely correct that Cullowhee lacks a lot of social gathering places that bigger college towns have. You also touch on one advantage that Western has over most other colleges in the country: the beautiful natural setting. We are surrounded by national forests and parks that many people from other parts of the country would visit on vacation–and this is where we live!

Unfortunately, your letter left out mention of many of the things to do in the mountains. Within a short drive from campus you can mountain bike, hike or run trails, camp, ski/snowboard in the winter, kayak, white-water raft, rock-climb. So, while it is true that many of the advantages of a larger college town are absent here, we also are blessed with opportunities that most college towns lack. I believe that LMP puts on kayaking clinics and teaches rock-climbing. Motion Makers Bicycle Shop in downtown Sylva is a nearby bike shop with a friendly owner. And, though it is a little farther away, Jus’ Running in Asheville is a running shoe store that has knowledgeable workers and a good selection of both road and trail-running shoes.

But, on a more philosophical level, everyone, not just students, has a choice to make with their non-work time: we can distract ourselves, or we can take advantage of the time. I understand that this is not a conventional way of thinking about time for college students (I certainly didn’t when I was an undergraduate) but let me explain it: most of us think of our non-work time as a time to distract ourselves from work. So, we watch TV, party, etc. While these activities can bring us enjoyment, they can also serve to prevent us from engaging in truly fulfilling experiences. It seems to me that there are a couple of ways to really fulfill oneself–that is, to make oneself happy in a deep way (rather than just amuse oneself). First, connection with others. Being together with people we care about is something we don’t often think about in college, since many of us consider our friends “buddies” rather than people to connect with emotionally. Yet, beneath the surface level fun there is a depth to many of our friendships in college that we don’t often tap; a depth than can bring us true and deep fulfillment. Activities that involve talking about concerns and ideas can touch that deep level that brings us fulfillment. I know that this is unfamiliar territory for many of us, but just going for walks or camping with friends in the woods is a great (and, around here, accessible) way to begin to connect with others.

A second way to fulfill ourselves is to create. Many people go through their whole lives without trying creative pursuits because they think only some people can “do” art or music or poetry. This, of course, is untrue. Most of the people who make lots of money in music are no more talented than any of us. A really fun and fulfilling evening (or afternoon) can be spent playing guitar and singing with friends. Not only is this fun, but Cullowhee could become one of the hippest college town in North Carolina with a grassroots music scene created by the students. It would be so easy to organize afternoon jams outside; and, guitar isn’t the toughest instrument to pick up. For those who are interested, a couple of websites that offer a ton of guitar tablature (songs spelled out so that you can learn them without being able to read music are “www.guitartabs.cc” and “www.olga.net”. A decent guitar can be bought for $100 to $200, which, though not dirt cheap, is something that many around here can afford.

Aside from the obvious appeal of music, art can offer a lot of fulfillment. And, as Betty Edwards’s book Drawing on the Artist Within shows, anyone can learn to draw, paint, etc. (the book specifically teaches techniques related to both realistic drawing and abstract painting/drawing). Anyone can do this stuff, you just have to make the effort. Writing is the same way: we all can write poetry, fiction, nonfiction essays, and get a tremendous sense of accomplishment from them. Plus, sharing our art and writing with our friends can create a wonderful way to connect with others. A good book for learning to develop confidence in writing is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

Finally, another way to create is through exercise: this is creation with the body. Picking up a particular skill sport like basketball or soccer takes time, but you can also see progress pretty quickly in the beginning. And, more pure athletic endeavors like biking or running can lead to great feelings of accomplishment (plus, we live in a wonderful place for mountain biking and trail running). There is also the obvious added benefit of exercise that it allows us to take care of our bodies–these incredible gifts that are capable of so much more than we often ask of them. Creating through sport is a wonderful and fulfilling way to spend time, and allows yet another way of being together with friends.

The trouble with these fulfilling experiences is that they take a lot more effort than does distraction. I’m not saying that distraction is all bad, just that we tend to focus on it as the only way to spend our leisure time. To do this too much, though, is to let life slip away. Not one of us knows how much time we have in this life. We tend, especially when we’re in college, to think the time will be long; that we will always be able to get around to those fulfilling connections with others later, that we can develop our creative gifts some time in the future. Obviously this is a belief that keeps away the terror of confronting our own death, but it is also a belief that allows us to live shallowly because we believe we will have time for depth later. Yet, meditating once in a while on what we would be doing if we knew we had only a short time left can be instructive. In his book Tuesdays with Morrie author Mitch Albom recounts his dying mentor’s words of advice about how to live a full life: “learn how to die and you learn how to live.”

So, at the end of this long open letter, I’d like to suggest that though Cullowhee does not offer many of the amusing distractions that other college towns do, it does provide us with kind people, beautiful nature, and the opportunity to move deeper within ourselves and develop our many possibilities. Perhaps, then, we can look not just at what our town lacks, but at the peaceful context it provides us for living life.

Sincerely,Chris Lenzo