First Snow • 初雪

The morning view from my window. ❄️

I haven’t seen snow in three years. The last time I did was in December 2014 when it was barely snowing in London and the brownish-grey slush in the fairgrounds weirdly resembled the chocolate slurpee from 7-11. It was not pretty. I was sad.

This morning, I was barely awake and on the phone with my mom when I rolled up the blinds and saw this view. On the other side of the chilled windows was a different Cambridge from the one I had been used to. A hushed, illumined world that had lost its garish colors and sharp edges because tiny snowflakes were gently raining down and blanketing everything in soft, furry cold. All-embracing, the snow was turning everything—grey streets, balding trees, metal gates, crimson walls, sleeping cars, and boring roads—into one brilliant white.

Snow is soft and hard, white and brown, a still silence and a crunch under my boots, gentle and biting, frozen and melting, intimate and ghostly, lightly falling and thickly drifting, horizontal blurs and swirling eddies, made the instant that it is unmade, remade as it is being unmade.

Shrubs turn into cauliflowers, trees grow white flowers, slopes form pillows for feet, and a smudge of earth reveals itself when you kick hard enough at the fluffy surface. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” plays in a soft hum from my phone, people are smiling more, two strangers offer donuts and blessings, we shake snow from our heads like wet puppies and then give up after two tries, I leave my own set of footprints in the yard.

It’s Narnia, Arendelle, the Snow Queen’s palace, Lyra Belacqua’s Arctic expedition, Jack Frost, and my polar express. What a childlike, funny place a snowing world is.

I honestly don’t know if I will want to kill this post when snow loses its charming novelty once I return from winter break next January. I can already see my future spring semester self in vivid detail: freezing into a popsicle and drowning under a thousand layers, but—

For now, the snow makes me feel happy!!! This week was our reading period before Finals week, but I only have one Final Exam left. Over the past five days, I edited and submitted my 3,922-word story (titled April, I Arrive on the Shores of Your Love) for my fiction writing workshop, read aloud part of the story at a Reading Party, finished two 1,200-word papers within eight hours for the Hum 10 take-home final (comparing Oedipus the King and Meditations, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fragments of Sappho), and presented my creative translation project (on love! inspired by my parents haha) in seminar. All that’s left is my Archaeology final on Wednesday.

By this time next week, I will be in sunny sultry steaming Singapore and the only snow I will have is bingsu. 🌞

As the snow is descending upon us, everything is winding down to its final moments.

I’m grateful for this semester of quiet blessings; gentle lessons on life; genuine moments of connection in laughter-filled corridors, over late nights, and between munches; continuously tandem feelings of comfort and challenge; the cerebral sigh of content when I’m doing what I love; books that reveal to me what it means to be human across the millennia; brilliant professors who set a benchmark that is going to be hard to surpass in future classes; and all the wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met (if you’re reading this blog, you’re definitely one of them!).

See you back home/next semester/over Facetime!

晨起开门雪满山,雪睛云淡日光寒。檐流未滴梅花冻,一种清孤不等闲。

《山中雪后》郑板桥

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

“The Dead” by James Joyce

Lots of Love,

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November is…

On a sunny day, we did an impromptu photoshoot outside the dorm room when it was not yet cold 😇

November is the great mystery of daylight saving time. It’s the time when night comes early, days turn dark in mid-swallow, and the sense of time grows distorted. It also makes me freak out a bit when it’s 5pm but it feels like 9pm and I’ve not yet started on my paper.

November is days bleeding into one another in a whirlwind of the now familiar routine of classes and paper-writing (I just wrote an 8-page paper last week on Descartes’ Meditations — throwback to KI!), meeting new people and connecting with friends that begin to feel curiously familiar. It’s a whirlwind interspersed with brilliant encounters with famous people in different settings (sitting in the audience as Elton John received Humanitarian of the Year from our dean onstage; attending a lunch workshop with Man Booker Prize-winning writer Michael Ondaatje, who autographed my copy of The English Patient!!).

November is cold. I’m swamped in huge furry coats, woolly gloves, and snuggly scarves, with the heater turned on high. I’ve also gotten a tad bit more used to people using Fahrenheit — thirty basically means freezing. A usual morning on the groggy side looks like this: Wakes up — opens the Weather app on my phone — stares at the 3°C below CAMBRIDGE — swipes right and surprise! SINGAPORE displays 30°C. 😭

November feels at once brand new, cloaked in autumn gold, and like the same old calendar month. Classes are winding down to the final two weeks — there’s the Harvard-Yale Game this weekend at New Haven and next week’s Thanksgiving Break in between. Then it’ll be reading period, final exams, and WINTER BREAK! I’ll be in Singapore for three weeks 🏝 and then in Washington, D.C. for ten days (look out for updates!).

November is discovering the magic of the BBC’s Jane Austen adaptations. When I had to read Emma for Hum 10 and my roommate Ani declared that she had watched the 2009 BBC Emma miniseries no less than five times, I promptly went on Hulu, clicked Episode 1, and proceeded to say goodbye to my next four hours. I finished the entire series in one sitting. It was magical and redefining. Here comes the newest pivotal dilemma of my life: who should I choose — (A) wet-shirt, broody, principled Mr. Darcy (by the incomparable Colin Firth in the 1995 version) or (B) handsome, intensely sweet, morally righteous Mr. Knightley (by the brilliantly subtle Jonny Lee Miller in the 2009 version)? QUESTION OF THE CENTURY.

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“Well, of course you must choose me.”

knightley

“How can it not be me?”

November is listening to Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation at midnight. ❤️ I’ve been listening to her songs since I was eleven, through her eponymous album, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, and now this; her songs are my go-to in times of crushes and heartbreak from unstarted loves. November is having her songs on repeat enough to last me (and ride out my habit of persistently playing a favorite song for 100000 times till I get sick of it) through the remainder of 2017. It’s my roommates dying from hearing her new songs in the morning when my alarm clock goes off, gets snoozed, and the scene iterates… HAHA.

My favourite Reputation lyrics

“You should take it as a compliment that I’m talking to everyone here but you.” — Gorgeous (THIS LYRIC)

“Is the end of all the endings? My broken bones are mending / With all these nights we’re spending / Up on the roof with a school girl crush / Drinking beer out of plastic cups.” — King of My Heart

“This ain’t for the best / My reputation’s never been worse, so / You must like me for me.” — Delicate

“Even in my worst lies you saw the truth in me.” — Dress

“There are no rules when you show up here / Bass beat rattling the chandelier / Feeling so Gatsby for that whole year.” — This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

“I’d kiss you as the lights went out / Swaying as the room burned down / I’d hold you as the water rushes in / If I could dance with you again.” — Dancing With Our Hands Tied

“I want your midnights, but I’ll be cleaning up bottles with you on New Year’s Day.” — New Year’s Day

This time, Taylor also penned two poems included in the limited-release magazines accompanying the physical album — “If You’re Anything Like Me” is acutely vulnerable, but it’s “Why She Disappeared” which uncannily resonates with me.

If You're Anything Like Me_by Taylor Swift

Why She Disappeared_by Taylor Swift

I’ll have a lot more time next week to slow down, take stock of the messy brilliant college semester so far, and blog (!) once Thanksgiving recess starts on November 22. Till then! Keep warm / cool (depending where you’re at) ❤️

Lots of Love,

To warmer days,

Sel

Wheeeeeee

Brevity: Can Fiction Save Felons?

Hi friends, I’m trying out a new feature on this blog (on top of regular posts). Let me know what you think. 🙂 

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Brevity features short weekly posts on the interesting, incisive, or inexplicably moving ideas inspired by my Harvard professors and classmates. It’s a record of the detail in those intellectual and creative moments, as well as an exploration of the curious questions that keep me up at the midnight hour. Here’s an honest snapshot of my mind.

***

Can fiction transform the lives of prison inmates?

I attended “The Words to Say it: Teaching, Writing, and Incarceration” panel last Thursday, featuring a discussion with novelist and Emmy-nominated screenwriter Richard Price, writer and prison-reform educator Edyson Julio, and author and legal scholar Michelle Kuo, moderated by my fiction writing professor cum novelist Claire Messud. In short: so many writers!!! And all of them discussing not simply the craft of writing, but the question that began this post, which on broader terms, entails an interrogation of this:

How does fiction matter to real-world issues? 

As a person who loves to read and write, I think about this question a lot. It bothers me because I can’t seem to find a concrete answer, but I also feel assured in its uncertainty because of course! There is no simple answer in life, least of all in the humanities.

I find this dilemma between what is deemed ‘practical’ and fiction, which is not, so sensitively expressed by Edyson Julio. He is a Bronx native from the Black community — one which is beleaguered by disproportionately high incarceration rates. To put things in perspective, one in three black men can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. As a community, black Americans are incarcerated at an average rate of 5 times that of white Americans.

Going home to write stories felt weirdly self-indulgent.

– Edyson Julio

Yet, what brought him to his incarceration work was a work of fiction, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (I had read an excerpt of it previously during fiction writing workshop). The novel moved him so much that it prompted him to teach creative non-fiction writing class at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Something unexpected happened: As he taught the inmates how to write, they began to create for themselves whole new personas, inventing new gestures, names, identity, and what seemed to be a new skin to cope with the bleak, violent realities of imprisonment.

Fiction presented for the inmates the possibilities of writing the other self, of transcending a fixed identity of a criminal that they have been condemned to. All three panelists agreed that the current state of incarceration in the US was that even if you didn’t enter prison a criminal, you would leave as one. Can fiction allow them to imagine being more?

What happens to the imagination in jail? The truth is stark: those dreams that the inmates have before entering prison get utterly dispelled. Even when they leave the prison compounds, they are changed, or as Price says, “you can’t get the prison smell off your brain”. In jail, the inmates have been conditioned and manipulated by their environment to fight or flight. It doesn’t occur to them that they are entitled to have dreams. For many, their natural instinct becomes basic survival.

Sometimes, fantasy is on scale with the reality. Your world becomes this vicious crowded phone booth. You think, maybe if I move this way, I’ll get this free pocket of air… You don’t think: “I want to fly a plane”.

– Richard Price

Fiction compels us to inspect the underlying narratives of our culture. That, perhaps, our concept of sin since Genesis — Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — is incomplete. Instead of perceiving the act as falling into an eternal state of sin, it can be viewed as a necessary awakening of human consciousness and a chance for human growth.

Maybe what fiction can accomplish is more subtle. It steers me to comprehension by nurturing the chaos of reality into a recognizable shape. I exercise the muscle of imagination and of empathy. And in spotting similar things between me and the character on the page, I recognize the humanity within myself. What can fiction do for felons? It does what it does for all readers — it allows the inmates to recreate themselves so that they can become multitudes, multitudes that can encompass contradictions in their identities (criminal versus father, son, brother, etc.) and disparities between their dreams and realities.

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

Things I Love

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Yesterday at Kirkland House (where Mark Zuckerberg stayed!!) after a FIP lunch.

1. Sundays on hammocks in hot Singaporean-like Cambridge weather. Hurrah!

2. Learning. The room is warm. My pulse is throbbing at an almost manic pace. In a hitched breath’s moment of unconscious cerebration, it occurs to me that I am surrounded by knowledge coming to life — in eager minds, raw stories, bustling thoughts, and this palpable sense of convivencia and of shared humanity that emerges from within all of us when we discuss vanished worlds in ancient texts (Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Poetics, Symposium…). Unbelievable, but somehow it is happening, in this time and place, in this infinite now. (I am really loving my Humanities seminar under Professor David Carrasco — here’s a link to his Wikipedia page! Every time I walk out of class, some ineffable change washes over me; I’m not sure what it is, but I feel just a bit more comfortable with uncertainty and a little bit more certain about what gives me meaning.)

3. Making stone tools in archaeology section (Anthro 1010). This satisfies Math?! Blessed.

Trying to refit the fragments of a stone.

4. Yesterday, I went to church for Sunday Mass for the first time in a long while. Some of my close friends may know about my uncertainty and burning questions with regards to religion’s answers to ‘Why am I here?’ and ‘How should we live our lives?’ As a kid, I encountered God in the Catholic tradition due to my parents and upbringing, but in recent years, I have leaned towards labeling myself as spiritual instead of Catholic. But, in a strange turn of events, I found myself seeing this age-old faith with new eyes after many years of estrangement. Thank you to each of you who are giving me a hand in this self-exploration 🙂

5. Drowning in books (is there anything happier than drowning in books?). There are a few which I’d like to spotlight because, without college, I would possibly never touch them:

  • Sappho’s If Not, Winter (for Humanities 10): basically the Taylor Swift of ancient Greeks (102: sweet mother I cannot work the loom/I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite)
  • Anne Carson’s Nox (for my Translation seminar): a handmade book in a box, an artifact, a translation, an accordion, an epitaph for an estranged and deceased brother, a raw and almost manipulative scrapbook of his life… It defies categorization, bursts with torn photographs, yellowed notes, and an overwhelming, fatigued sense of loss that echoes in Latin poem Catullus 101 (which Carson translates).

    nox

    Look at this gorgeous work of art.

  • David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries (for my Archaeology class): it’s honestly hilarious. In the year 4022, a random dude chances upon a hotel from the 2000s and thinks it’s a tomb. He treats the toilet seat as a sacred urn and all kinds of nonsensical, nutty misinterpretations of the past ensue. But, maybe, if ancient civilizations read about our current account of the past, they would be laughing in their graves.
  • For my fiction writing workshop, our lovely professor Claire Messud was on a book tour last week in London so she couldn’t come to class, but her husband did and he is James Wood!! He has been called the best literary critic of his generation and he writes book reviews for The New Yorker. The fact that I get to be taught by such incredible people sometimes blows my mind.

6. Roommates who squeal with me on Saturday nights about the WEIRDEST things. 😇

At slinky silent disco (???)

7. A weekend that included a wondrous burger at Harvard Square (Alden & Harlow), going to Chinatown in Boston for xiaolongbao and authentic bubble tea, singing karaoke, rewatching The Social Network, a lot of ice-cream, and good catch-ups with friends that have been swallowed by the monster called Harvard Life.

8. Facetiming/Skyping/Video-calling people I love, such as my parents ❤ ❤ ❤ If you are my good friend and we’ve not Facetimed, TEXT ME NOW.

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Until next week!

To all my dear friends across the globe: how have you guys been? I miss you and I love you.

xoxo,

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Embracing Rejection At Harvard (also unexpected surprises)

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A rejection 😦 (There is a twist at the end, so read on.)

Dear Writing,

It’s an open secret that I love you but have never felt very sure about you. You’re a complicated lover — sometimes, you come so close I can breathe your scintillating effervescence and feel you intimately against the insides of my skin; other times, I’m reminded by your improbable capriciousness. You don’t belong to me, you dance nimble steps a distance away, you ask, all wide-eyed innocence, Who said this would be easy? 

I know. I really do.

*

I applied for a fiction writing workshop under Harvard’s Creative Writing program, housed in the college’s English Department. A brief Googling yields some interesting yet intimidating history about the program on The Crimson (Harvard’s daily newspaper): Writing Classes Turn Students Away is pretty self-evident from its five-word title; Ink and Paper: Creative Writing at Harvard calls the selection process “notoriously competitive”; Many Dissatisfied with Creative Writing compares Harvard’s (intimate 12-people workshops) to the larger number of creative writing offerings at other schools like Yale and Princeton.

To determine admissions, all of Harvard’s creative writing courses require a separate application that includes a three to five-page writing sample in the relevant genre due on the first day of classes each semester. Each student also ranks their course preferences when applying.

Frankly speaking, I don’t have a lot of experience with fiction writing. It’s something that I always wanted to do, but I ended up talking more about it than ever seriously attempting it. I have not written a novel; I have never been to a writing workshop; I have not even published any short stories online or elsewhere.

Yet, when I opened my inbox to read that email on a drizzling gray afternoon on September 5, my heart still died a little. (It resurrected sometime later.)

Here were the first things that enveloped me. Self-doubt (Maybe I’m not a good writer? Should I stop trying for this kind of thing? Goodbye The Advocate and anything remotely creative writing related.), thoughts of if-only and what-if (I should not have started working on my writing sample eight hours before it is due; why did I ever think this was a good idea?), and a sense of resigned helplessness clambered into my mind in a clamorous scuffle. Even though I had an inkling of the competition that it is inevitable when you gather the best and brightest together for a limited number of opportunities, and I knew I was competing against not only my peers but also upperclassmen and graduate students for those 12 slots, rejection is never (and should never be) easy to swallow.

In a mildly depressed haze, I went to the gym at the M.A.C. for the first time since college started. The steady thuds of my soles against the treadmill pulled me out of the despondent swirl of thoughts. And I recognized the pulsing, irrevocable pull I felt towards challenging and transformative experiences, the inextinguishable yearning I had for doing hard things that can change me, and the heart that drummed loudly to authentically live and achieve my best — if I can never get rid of my ambition, I must necessarily come to terms with this ugly but formative thing called rejection.

The moment I officially acknowledged that in my mind, all the clutter cleared. What mattered then was how fast I could condition my mind to move past rejection and whether I could figure out how to try again, again and again — however many times it would take — in a progressing, more sophisticated fashion.

*

Life works in mercurial, unbelievable ways.

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Turns out I’m the first name on the waiting list! Someone didn’t enroll (thank you!!!) and I got in! 🙂

The next day, on September 6, when I was on my way to shop another class, I refreshed my inbox and saw an impossible email from the Harvard Creative Writing Program.

I got in, off the waiting list! Firstly, I didn’t know there was a waiting list. Secondly, isn’t it incredible that I am the first name on the waiting list? Thirdly, it must be by some strange miracle of the universe that someone just so happens to be unable to enroll and I get to discover all this behind-the-scenes stuff. This is what I think: God wants to test my resilience. The power to embrace rejection is harder to master than hard-earned acceptance. So every rejection I taste at an early phase is a precious chance for self-growth.

So, yes! I am now one of 12 students taking the Fiction Writing workshop under Professor Claire Messud this semester.

And yes, there is a happy ending to this story.

But, the happy ending is not the key thing here. What is crucial is understanding that we must each discover how we individually can embrace rejection, conquer it in as short a time as possible, and keep moving with high hopes and concrete action — all these set against the backdrop of Life in which rejection is constant and inescapable.

Even as a freshman, I find myself constantly faced with the prospect of not getting a coveted class. For instance, out of the four classes I’m taking this fall, three had an application process. I might have ended up with a completely different slate of classes in another time and place if all three didn’t happen to work out. Introducing my Freshman Fall classes:

  1. A Humanities Colloquium: From Homer to Garcia Marquez
  2. Freshman Seminar: The Creative Work of Translating
  3. Fiction Writing: Workshop
  4. The Fundamentals of Archaeological Methods & Reasoning (For people who are like ‘HUH? You want to be an archaeologist?’, no I don’t, but in an alternate universe, I would be a 20th century tomb-raider. This anthropology class satisfies the Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning General Education requirement, yay! Farewell calculus!)

I am immensely grateful for the rocky way I converged with my fiction writing workshop and this early rejection on the cusp of my transition to four years at Harvard. I will never be able to stop myself from aiming for things I love — no matter how high the probability of rejection. In a place like Harvard, or even in life, the most empowering thing might just be to proudly wear whatever rejections come my way like emblems of a battle-hardened veteran driven by unyielding dreams.

Lots of Love,

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