Treading Through Storied Grounds

The stones on Old Campus are jagged and uneven, ever the more evident after rain fills in the small pockets within. Traveling from one end to another, I fumble and trip over my clumsy feet, where my toes and soles have discovered a new crevasse in this sprawling lawn. The Earth whispers, who do you think you are? to run across this land of mystery and hope in such a panic, not realizing where you are?

On overcast days, it is easy to slide into the mud here, where life would be so much easier than trudging through stacks upon stacks of knowledge. But truly, there is no difference between the tombs of Sterling and the rocks of OC; the same people have contributed to both. These rough pavements were made rough by generations of students treading through storied grounds, adding (and subtracting) their own piece into it. I am not the first to stumble, and certainly, I am not the first to get back up. The tales that this campus can tell! I can only wonder – is my plight anything like Maya Lin’s, or Bill Clinton’s, or Samuel Morse’s, or Jonathan Edwards’s?

But walking today, with a pound of strawberries and lightness in my hands, I can only wonder. At the monumentality of the oaks, at the graciousness where the dorms touch the skies touch the students. I will keep my head lifted high, yearning for how these grounds will change me and how I will change them.

You do you

Wise advice is a dime a dozen here on campus, where all the upperclassmen rush to stop freshman from making their same mistakes. “Don’t take more than five credits.” “Keep a balanced diet” or “Don’t rub that statue’s shiny shoe; people pee there.” Seniors, shocked at how fleetingly their “Bright College Years” have passed, try to put as much of themselves into the school as they can. Upperclassmen, even sophomores, remember the neuroses that emerge as campus living begins, seeking to ease the fears with some sage words. But by far, the most valuable advice thus far has been: you do you.

As the moonlight rose in the woods of western Massachusetts, our FOOT group gathered around a dying fire and spoke truly from the heart. The mountains have torn us down and built us up, where the wild air mixed with smelly socks to create brotherhood between all of the campers. With the deep bonds that united us, we could speak as free as the birds in the sky. The conversation pivoted towards great regrets, and soon, this gem of advice emerged. If only I could have been more of myself during the opening days of school. If only I didn’t need to imitate others … if only I could be me … if only …

The most striking part of this advice was how different it was from everything else I had heard. Advice, by definition, is a recommendation on what to do in the future. It needs to come from authority or have some gravitas to influence someone else’s life, or even someone’s worldview. Yet, a recommendation to /ignore/ advice, to just be yourself? Instead of viewing it as a cliched phrase, seriously consider what being yourself means on a larger scale. It requires you to first understand your own identity, and then execute it in all that you do – quite the real challenge.

On several of my applications, I wrote that my biggest challenge would be my stubborness. When I believed that I was right about something, I would often charge blindly ahead, shutting out all those who were horrified by my abrasiveness or rudeness. It would be difficult for me to accept another opinion, and only after quiet and deep reflection, would I be able to come to terms with it. While all this is true, it is not my biggest flaw – though, flaw isn’t the best terminology to use. Instead, I hate most that I do not have a solid core identity, that I go with the flow, that I melt into the background, that I don’t speak firmly for myself. Rather than taking time to understand who I was, I would be much happier being the projected image of who I should be, according to others or even to who I wanted myself to be. Rather than creating original works, I would be much happier first understanding the work of other’s and then modifying it. Rather than use unique grammar, I would be much happier with repetition, because repetition was always clear, it would always be classic and right.

I had this epitome while I was meeting new students on campus, beyond the haze of awkwardness and self-evaluation. I would always be open and excited to meet somebody, anybody, for the first time, but it would be a struggle to stay with them for an extended period of time. I always thought myself as a social butterfly for that reason, but perhaps it is instead because I am a social recluse? Meeting anyone for the first time is a science that can be perfected, given enough tries and sufficient confidence. A re-imagined self emerges with each greeting, another facet of the soul. No single introduction is false in any way, but it picks up on the subtle clues of the conversation to be altered just enough to be comfortable. Continued conversation required real character. It needs a heart and soul behind the easy speaking of chitchat. I’ve written on getting beyond small talk, but ironically it seems like small talk is all I’m capable of any more. I’ve lost sight of myself in trying to make others feel comfortable. I’ve lost control of the motivations, the realness within me.

Rediscovering identity is an aimless journey of no benchmarks or markers along the way. It’s the most terrifying thing that I can imagine at this point, because whatever comes out from the journey, you’re stuck with. You can’t just choose to reject identity; you can cover over it, minimize it, seclude it, but never reject it. Identity is part of yourself, and it isn’t something that changes quickly. Perhaps I’m scared of what I would find when I examine that identity. Behind all of the labels and behind all of the accolades, who am I?

But perhaps this is a ridiculous question to ask. Noone exists in a vaccuum, so why am I obsessed with discovering such an identity? Literature exists in relationship to all other printed word, whether it be borrowing or creating. Books and style come only from time, as the good is nourished and the bad is pruned. Eventually, something would emerge, something with a mix of all the mistakes and eurekas of the past. In that distant future, these doubts and worries would blend and soften into a rosy image. Those bright days of the past! How quickly they would go! But living through it is a different matter – living with the self-doubt, the FOMOs, the awkward conversations.

But soon, I will be me.

Reflections upon Reflections

NB: A backlogged post from reflections prior to entering college. Written with a strong tone of Pirsig and an aftertaste of coffee. Enjoy.

Crystalline smooth surfaces have me staring at my face, even as I seek to gaze below the surface of the tranquil pond. The quiet of dawn, the inner peace found through nature, surrounds and calms me through and through. These past two weeks, I have been reflecting upon my past high school life, seeking to divine what the future has in store. But tonight, with the Perseids lighting up the sky, I reflect with peace and serenity.

Seattleites sure love talking about the weather, but it’s not hard to see why. The abruptness of a summer storm with dark beauty in its thundering clouds, sweeps over the region and raises petrichor from the ground. As the hail beats the dry caked ground, I look up in vain at the morose skies. Every astronomical event has been ruined by the glum Seattle atmosphere, every blood moon and meteor sighting. Now, just days away till I leave for a new haven, the clouds would block me out once more for the Perseids, a spectacular meteor shower made all-the-more better with the new moon. No matter. I would stay through the darkness, praying to catch a glimpse regardless of what I see right now.

Around 11, I get a message from David. “Hey did the meteor shower end?” he asks, just as I’m about to settle for a quick nap. “Not yet- hasn’t even started haha” I type back, hoping that he would be able to stay up and see these shooting stars. In a few more lines, my eyes widen. David is at Mount Rainier tonight, which is not only the most magnificently round dumpling in the Washington forests, but also the best dark sky area in the Pacific Northwest. Although jealous, I quickly guide him to the location of a star party at the Sunrise Visitor Center, hoping that he could get to witness this amazing experience. After all, that’s all I can do for all of my friends. All of us at Interlake have been together for such a long time that I have nothing but goodwill for each one of them as they journey forwards. I believe that Interlake doesn’t have the cutthroat competition that may be found in other top notch schools because we are all so intertwined in the stories that we have and the goals in our future. Now, as we scatter like dust upon the wind, I can no longer hold on to their comfort. But. I can always rely on them to surprise and cheer me up, in thousands of minute ways in the future.

I nap, trying to desperately charge my own batteries, but as 2 am swings by, I leap outwards. armed with sky charts and blankets, the inky black skies seem to invite me outwards with a gentle rustle and nip. The gloomy clouds have begun to clear up to become a truly beautiful night, the rare combination of new moon and clear skies. Perhaps the best that Seattle can ever get to. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I drag out my telescope onto the driveway along with the armchair and hot tea. Might as well bring out the big guns! But as I lug the giant polished mirror, too awkward for a single person, I struggle and think of the difficulties ahead. In a few short days, I will be on my own, without any loving parent to assist me. As I painfully piece together the assembly in the dark, I think of how there have always been gentle hands guiding me in the past. And as I discover, to my great dismay, that I am now missing a small but crucial adaptor, I am reminded of the care that mom and dad always had when things didn’t succeed. I sigh, and slowly disassemble and lug each part back. This will just be a calm observational night, no fancy pictures.

I kick back into my lawn chair, strategically placed to block out streetlights with the. It is 2:45, and I calm myself down in a half meditative way. Sky watching is a whole lot like fishing- you never really know where the next meteor will come from, so all you can do is to get a feel for it. You sit and stare and try not to strain your eyes in any particular direction, because you know that while the center of your eyes are good for color detection, it’s the sides that are important now for bright streaks. Sitting still and not falling asleep in the dark, I elect for a period of silence.

Truly, I had done so much reflecting over the past summer. From family in China to friends in the US, every exchange is markedly predictable. Am I ready? Am I excited? And yet, even after answering these personal questions nearly by rote, I’m still not sure where my heart resides. There is just a small hiccup, where my perceptions of the world just mismatches with its reality. And so, quiet reflection has brought up those emotions bubbling to the surface once more. They rise and set continuously, of confusion and adrenaline, of anxiety and peace. Before long, I realize that they are all two faces of the same coin. Or are they the same face of two coins? Does it matter?

Slowly, lazily drifting, a speck of light moves across my field of vision, bringing me out of my stupor. It’s far too fast for any plane or star, but several magnitudes slower than any shooting star. I watch it with amazement as this dot represents a miracle in engineering. Humans have sent so many satellites into orbit that Low Earth Orbit is as crowded as I-405, but I am reminded of the first satellite. As Spurnik slowly pinged across the world, families looked up in amazement, as a bit of humanity, a bit of us, has joined the heavens above. The satellite- I think it’s the ISS judging from its speed and size- moves with purpose but deliberation. Each part of the behemoth structure knows what must be done to further humanity’s probes into the unknown. I can only hope that I can follow such an example. Would I be able to have that kind of nonstop attitude, even as the fire dies down? Could I be a consistently hardworking student? Most importantly, could I do good (not well)?

Without warning, a flash catches my eye. The first meteor of the night- a baby, lasting just a second. While small, the intensity startles me. In usual stargazing sessions, one never gets these beautiful streaks. This is because it’s only after midnight that the majority of meteors are visible, as the earth finally faces in the right direction. This was worth the wait.

Soon, another. And another. And yet another. They fall, not as plentiful as rain, but just sparse enough to make each one a treasure of its own. Each one has a different characteristic- some streak across the span of several constellations, while others are more like an Iridium flare than a comet. If only we could view our own lives as short as a shooting star- but in the grand scale, we occupy a far shorter fraction of time. Looking up, I see that there is no shooting star that is markedly better than another. Each brings a different type of joy, a different type of sweetness. But every one of them shines bright. Oh, so bright.

As my natural eyes wander from constellation, I also have a digital eye watching, ready to capture. 3 am and I stir from the chair, ready to set it up for some star trails. Because as the Earth turns, the fixed stars stand still, calmly pointing humanity forwards. Yet, we have the audacity to believe that we are fixed and they move. In a star trail, a time lapse is taken over the course of hours, and frame by frame, an outline emerges. It is a view that can only be gained with the progression of time. A capture of both time and space in one single compiled photo. It is beautiful. Some things cannot be seen in the moment; they take time to build and build, each step infinitesimally small but ultimately creating an incredible product. It’s been said that true genius is recognize potential in a seed, but I believe it is true wisdom to patiently nurture that seed into a great tree. Nothing can beat time- to heal, to mature, to grow.

All will come in due time.

The hour hand ticks past four, and a rustle emerges from the house. A bushy head of hair pops out the front door, squinting in the darkness. My dad, with his superb sleep schedule that better fits small islands in the Atlantic Ocean than Seattle, wakes up and checks on me. In another 10 minutes, he is bundled up too, coming out to this rare and beautiful night to gaze with me. We sit in silence, with interspersed oos and ahs as streaks pass by. There is no need for talk; enough is said in the silence. This is the man who has raised me, seen me through the good and the bad. No need for small talk here.

What more is to be said to someone who had heard it all? Leaving friends is sad; leaving family is impossible. No matter how much bickering will ever exist, their blood runs through my veins, hot and heavy. Wherever I go, their influence carried me along, making me think harder, push farther, and love deeper. My first teachers, counselors, and friends, my family is always here for me. And now I must leave them.

We stay up far later than we should, late enough to see the rising of a deep winter constellation in mid Fall. Orion rises from the East, chasing after those mystical creatures, on the eternal chase of the gods. His jeweled belt was the first I ever recognized, as a young and impressionable kid in Knoxville. That first memory, of finally looking up and just seeing it’s shape, has always stayed with me. There is not a sensation more powerful than the first time you feel the infinite vastness of the universe before your eyes, and here it comes again. This mythos had carried me far beyond my imagination. I give chase after their secrets, and in return, they provide infinite more questions to ponder.

But the rise of Orion is simultaneous with the rise of a star far better known. It is 5AM, and our sun starts to make its way up. There is much time before the orb of light and life peaks above the horizon, but already, it’s effects can be seen. The dimmest stars of Perseus and Auriga fade, so slowly that I doubt the integrity of my own eyes at first. But there is no stopping it. We do not doubt the rise of the sun for two reasons: it has risen a million times before, and that out science has shown the existence of a ball of fire that our little rock slowly revolves and rotates around. My educational training will bring me to more explanations of the latter variety, but I take solace in the former. This is how it has been done for millennia; this is how it will be done for millennia more.

The bleaching of the sky wipes the stars out one by one, slowly at first, then all at once until only the brightest remain. The night has ended with the might of the sun, but that’s alright too. A new day brings different challenges, not better or worse. Just different. There will always be another dusk to return to the memories of the night; there will always be another dawn to bring back light. Is my departure the sunset of one journey, or the sunrise of another? But that’s just semantics. My heart is at peace- and that is enough.

Just as I head in, one more flash surprises me. An ambitious shooting star has raced against the sun, and won. It was the longest streak I had seen all night- brilliant and proud, the meteor refuses to go quietly into the night. It will be seen; it will be!

This night etches itself into my memory with the sharpness of an Exacto knife. It cuts in with emotion and reality, commanding me to live life. All my reflections are in the skies above; all the heavens are mirrored in my thoughts. As long as there are stars in the sky and wonder in my heart, I will be fine.

I will live.
I will love.
I will reflect.

The Importance of Being Important

Sweat dominates the olfactory landscape, as a sea of young women and men crowd in front of ornamented organs and delicate decorations. Dressed in their Oxfords, these students have gathered to hear the president and the deans, the peak of Mount Academia, share and speak their thoughts to the new entering class. Naturally, pomp and tradition dominates the experience as the heavenly choir and majestic organ float through the wind. Commencement is here for the Yale Class of 2019.

Through President Salovey, Dean Halloway, Dean Muller and Master Near’s several articulate speeches, the vision of Yale’s future slowly solidifies. Their speeches touch on topics as soaring as the songs in the procession: issues of national and global importance, pleas of intellectual discussion and mindfulness, and a dedication towards leadership and service. With the particular focus around the naming of Calhoun College and the national discussion of race, there is no shortage of empathetic and logical calls to action. We have been selected to guide this country towards a better future, a better tomorrow.

Still, something bothers me. It was covered in Professor Gage’s address in the Freshman Commencement – the paradoxes of Yale. As she mentioned, there are three overt messages we often hear:

  1. You did not get in by mistake. You are special and unique and important.
  2. Noone else got in by mistake. Everyone around you is special and unique and important, and you need to work hard if you expect anything good.
  3. You are privileged. You are good. You are important.

Obviously, these first two messages can often cause confusion and unease within students. How are we able to study in a joyous setting when everyone is special? Would our delicate minds be able to handle not being the best, or would we immediately have nervous breakdowns? Of course, the solution to this is an appeal to our love for learning. Coming to Yale represents that we students are no longer bound to the rat race of education, such as is found in high school. Everyone can be a happy learner, absorbing the pinnacle of human knowledge in this exclusive, safe club.

However, it seems to me that it immediately implies several topics – that 1) people who are not fortunate enough to get into a top school are unable to appreciate the happiness of learning, 2) that people who were not able to enter college at all are thereby unable to prosper from the love of learning, and 3) that high school is not ultimately beneficial in any way towards the journey of learning, but is instead only a stepping stone for the next step.

I have a problem with those three corollaries, which I believe stems from one root cause: importance. We, as students, have arrived within the iron gates and Gothic halls, designed to provide grandeur and mysticism to the college we live in. Every branded item, from the small stickers to the lanyards to the large banners and posters, reminds us that you are here, that you made it. No matter what you do, it’ll be fine. As a senior CS student told me, it’s okay if you don’t do well in the academics, extracurriculars, or social life of the campus. You are already in. You already have the name. It’ll be fine.

But will it really?

I want to be happy in college, and for me, that means applying all of me to the brilliant classes and even more to the enormously kind friends I hope to make. I have no doubt that the majority of Yale feels the same way, that there is something more than a number or a diploma that makes up a human. We receive the education here and use it to improve the world.

A large portion of this stems from two sources – one, an excellent Yale Daily News article by Victoria Hall-Palerm on Importance in Yale, and another essay in Harper Magazine by William Deresiwicz on college and the market. Both have colored, or at the least, tinted, my perception of these welcome ceremonies. Like Deresiwicz, I’m jarred by the lack of “education” as one of the college’s foci, but perhaps that is so simple that the leadership need not to mention it? Or perhaps this is just further nervousness of how classes will look like, and how I will perhaps find my own bliss here.

The first day of classes have treated me well. Each seminar and discussion brought in new insights, just as I had always hoped. Perhaps prejudging the college on nothing but the merits of the opening processions is too empty. All I know is that I will be trying my hardest and doing my best.