The Big 21

On May 31, 2019, I turned 21.

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Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner 

The big 21 is sundrenched in Californian heat, pulsing in road trip vibes, and peppered with desert sand and surrealist tree-like cacti with muscled arms (think: the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter). Outside of the window are lonely gas stations, abandoned houses, and then a humongous pink ice cream rupturing the barren, earthy landscape. Glitzy outlets in deserts. 50’s diners in ghost towns. A candy factory by the highway. Wasteland dotted in green thorns.

The big 21 is 1,500km over three days. Being on the car for hours at an end, with my legs up on the seat in front, light filtering through the windows, my fingers shuffling songs on Spotify, basking in the shadow of mountains. Highways nestled in endless expanses of land. So much land that my dad says, America must be blessed. There’s so much history — historical injustice — and circumstance wrapped up in that statement, but as the land whizzes past, it seems true.

The big 21 is perching on a hot, red rock at Grand Canyon West’s Guano Point, wind ruffling my hair, and sun in my eyes. It’s gazing into the canyon abyss on a glass skywalk. It’s the glory of nature’s hand, so close to mankind’s own feats, but those pale in comparison.

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The big 21 is returning from that display of nature to the haven of capitalist excess. It’s being surrounded by temptations in the desert oasis that’s Las Vegas. It’s weaving in and out of the glittering sprawl of casinos, amidst the intensely colored slot machines making cute sounds. It’s marveling at the incredible, gravity-defying feats of Cirque du Soleil acrobats at KÀ (which had multiple VERTICAL combat scenes?! and people strewing rose petals as they make an arc over the air). It’s learning the danger of unchecked desires. It’s beginning to make new principles.

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The big 21 is spending the day at Universal Studios Hollywood (it’s really becoming a tradition! my 20th was at Universal Studios Japan 🥳). It’s licking cotton candy (shaped like Marge’s hair from The Simpsons) off my fingertips, drinking Butterbeer at Hogsmeade, taking my favorite Revenge of The Mummy ride (which I almost know by heart now), seeing the Bates Motel set from Psycho, wearing a bright blue birthday badge and hearing birthday wishes from buoyant voices all day long. It’s feeling like a kid still, and acutely aware and grateful that I’m 21 but always my parents’ baby.  

The big 21 is feeling grateful for all the love and wishes from friends, old and new. Growing up is realizing that some people might only stay with you for a short station in life’s journey but that some people do stay, for a very long time. Time and distance can change things, and somehow I am further apart from friends geographically unlike younger days when we all lived within twenty minutes’ drive. For the friendships that last, I am immensely grateful. For the friends who I’ve met at Harvard, I’m so thankful that college life has been spent by your sides. To everyone who remembered, very blessed to have you in my lives. ❤

The big 21 is about family. Parents who will fly eighteen hours with me across the Pacific to celebrate my birthday. Parents who tolerate my childishness (even when I’m now legally an adult T_T) while treating me like an equal in many matters; who educate me when I make mistakes while always growing and reflecting alongside me; who give me the freedom to fly far away and explore to my heart’s content while opening their arms in wide, warm embrace each time I return to their harbor. 爸比妈咪,我爱您们!💕💕💕

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The big 21 is realizing God’s hand in guiding my life in the smallest, most moving details. At so many points on the West Coast, I’ve realized His wisdom only in retrospect. Thank you, God, for carrying me on Your shoulders. I hope to keep growing into a better version of myself under Your love and to do You proud.

The big 21 is also about this blog, where I pen these thoughts down. I started this in 2017. Now, this is my 57th post. Over 30,000 of you have visited, and many of you have kept reading. My last wish here is to keep growing alongside more of you, to keep writing, and to tell life’s magic in stories that can stay. Thank you for reading the story of my life. ❤

Wishing you, dear reader, all the love and happiness in the world,

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Selina Xu Birthday Cake

My Sophomore Spring Harvard Classes + Some Little Things

Belatedly, wishing all of you: Happy Year of the Pig!!! ❤ ❤ ❤

First things first, things that have served as brilliant reminders when life works weirdly:

1. Turn your FOMO into JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) — I would like to interpret it as loving yourself and realizing that doing nothing or doing less are all relative terms that we use to measure ourselves relative to something external. Though we might often doubt ourselves for not doing enough, not spending time on academics or extracurriculars might mean spending it with your body, your mind, or your soul. (Thank you, Marwah. x) That’s as worthwhile and meaningful. We all have different paths and different destinations along the way. So the balance is to walk my own path while still keeping in sight where I want to go and to make sure I’m keeping pace with my internal calling.

 

2. Maintaining a healthy weight is a marathon not a sprint!!!

3. My classes. Let’s say, Q = “Eating more brings weight gain” — at least, there’s one thing in life that works by the same causal logic as proposition Q: reading and thinking more brings a better version of myself. I’ve slacked off quite a bit this long weekend (on Sunday, I curled up in a corner of Cabot Library and just read romance novels for an entire afternoon). No skimping on readings subsequently, Selina!!!

Now, a bit more about what I’m taking this semester:

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AESTHINT 47 Forbidden Romance in Modern China

I was destined to take this class. Forbidden Romance? Check. China? Check. We’ve studied illicit love letters between Lu Xun and his female student, Yu Dafu’s auto-erotic story of narcissism and patriotism, and the secret love affair between the married darling of modern China and Virginia Woolf’s nephew.

Almost astonishingly, I’ve discovered that women back then had much greater latitude in exploring new forms of intimacy, constructing a new feminine subjectivity in romantic liaisons, and breaking from societal traditions. The many types of love (teacher-student, extramarital, eroticism, older woman-younger man) that flourished then amidst the post-May 4th zeitgeist might be considered taboo right now. Perhaps, the literary history of modern romance is a narrative of regression.

Professor David Wang, who teaches this, is so incredibly earnest and empathetic in his lectures. His lecture on the life of Yu Dafu (a writer who began his life with debauchery and ended up in martyrdom) was the first time I teared up in a lecture.

HIST-LIT 97 Sophomore Tutorial — Cultures of U.S. Imperialism

One of my main reasons for declaring History & Literature is to explore imperialism/postcolonialism and narrative historiography (empire and globalization through fiction) in tandem. We will be reading many authors who I have encountered before (which could be a good or a bad thing): E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad (!!!), J. M. Coetzee, Wole Soyinka, and Jamaica Kincaid. Thus far, we’ve looked at the British empire as much as the U.S. empire. It’s interesting being the only non-American a class as U.S.-centric as this one, and having grown up with a partially Anglophone education in Singapore that bears the indelible vestiges of British colonialism.

PHIL 33 Ethical Issues in Social, Cultural, and Artistic Representation

Telling other people about my classes this semester has been a mouthful because of Phil 33. Everyone’s response is always a lull, followed by, Say again?

I didn’t actually shop this class, but shopped numerous others. Expectedly, on the Friday of Shopping Week, I once again ended up in utter confusion and disarray about my course cart. After my friend told me in the afternoon about this class, I decided to enroll on a whim. I’m interested in the topics we have been discussing in class (it’s just 8 of us) in the abstract, but not that much in the specific. Right now, we have been analyzing arguments on both sides of the Confederate symbol debate. How do we judge the past? What gives a symbol its racist meaning? How can we correct historical injustice?

Subsequent topics might resonate more:

  • Cultural Property and Cultural Appropriation
  • Stereotypes
  • Ethics and Fictional Representations

PHIL 136 Phenomenology of Lived Experience

Taught by Professor Samantha Matherne!!! (She taught my Kant class last semester and was phenomenal.) Absolutely a blast so far. I wasn’t familiar at all with the word ‘Phenomenology’ before taking this class and still am not quite sure. The central question is: what are the general structures that any experience involves?

We started by looking at treatments of the phenomenology of lived experience in general in texts by Brentano and Husserl (now Heidegger). I’m really excited to later work out the phenomenology of specific modes of lived experience in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Emilio Uranga’s “Essay on an Ontology of the Mexican,” and Sara Ahmed’s “Orientations: Towards a Queer Phenomenology.”

I WILL DO MY READINGS THOROUGHLY!

If any of these ideas interest you, come talk to me about my classes anytime.

4. Happy Lantern Festival! 元宵节快乐~We’ve reached the fifteenth (and the last) day of the Lunar New Year celebrations so fast. There have been some dreary days and afternoons of seemingly incurable malaise, but also some mornings when I sit in class and look at the world in wonder, emerging from a vulnerable conversation into a kinder world.

Even though I haven’t eaten tangyuans (those glutinous balls with black sesame or peanut paste fillings), I had a call with my mom tonight across continents and time zones, which put my life in perspective and filled me with faith. Thank you for always believing in me. You don’t know how much it means to me, 妈咪 ❤ Sending this ball of positive energy to all of you. On cold nights with swirling snow weighing on gaunt treetops, think of this cute picture below.

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Lots of love,

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Sky Lanterns & New Year Resolutions

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Get off the old train, step onto the platform, merging into the stream of bobbing heads flowing along at the speed of a sweating snail.

Squeeze past the human gantry, craning my neck for a look at the sky behind the canopy roof. See the miniature sky in the phone screens held up by the multiple raised hands, the real blue expanse split up, obscured, and obstructed from view by the sheer size of the crowd. There are many gasps of wonder around me. The path reaches the edge of the platform and now widens —

As the crowd cascades left and right, the sky unfurls before me. Baby blue. Rolls of clouds like crinkled leather. Suddenly, from behind a corrugated roof, a lantern rising. From between buildings on two sides of the track, a gap of light. Another lantern-like bird or bird-like lantern. A third. The sky dotted by lanterns rising, faint streams of smoke trailing, embers behind the paper.

Choose a lantern from a catalog of auspicious blessings. Watch it pinned up by worn, quick hands. Pick up a brush and dip it into an ink-splattered bucket.

Scrawl. Scribble. Signature. An imprint of wishes, prayers, and dreams by a railroad. Set against a sky full of lanterns, like the old, wise eyes of clouds watching from up above.

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There’s something reassuring about ritualized actions — writing prayers on paper, letting the lantern rise, watch it soar up and beyond until it’s a tiny dot. It will eventually land somewhere, wedged on a rooftop, fluttering in the mountains, resting on a rock. Yet, at least from what I can witness, its symbolism leaves me full of hope. Apart from the wishes I’ve released up into the sky, penned on all four sides of the sky lantern, I feel compelled to write down my 2019 resolutions after a break of two years (I used to religiously write all my resolutions down on a piece of drawing block and pin it up on my desk).

Some small things:

New Year Resolutions

养生 Health 🍵

  • Eat wisely. Lose another 3 kilograms, which I inevitably gained in Taipei and Singapore. T_T
  • Sleep early before 12:30AM daily. My mom scoffingly informed me of this phrase she read online — “用着最好的护肤品,熬着最晚的夜!” — which is me personified: slathering layers of skincare products on my face while staying up late.

On a side note, I’m bringing jasmine tea leaves(茉莉花茶), chrysanthemum packets(夏桑菊), and my beloved Chia Te pineapple tarts (THE BEST I’VE EVER EATEN) to campus. Guess which is not going to be helpful for my first resolution.

To be really honest, I can understand my parents’ strict standards for my weight. To them, it represents how much self-discipline I have. If it is within my ability to be healthier and to look more attractive, compromising that reeks of laziness and unchecked desire.

责任 Responsibility 🐝

  • Be punctual. Be punctual. Be punctual. I would like to apologize here to everyone who has ever waited for me. New year, new me!
  • Be better at responding to text messages.
  • Every year, this resolution remains the same: time management. Only when I can manage my time well enough to accommodate for emergencies will I have the room in my life for unexpected opportunities and adventures. ❤
  • Full attendance for all classes this year (even if I’m feeling unwell). On the first day of 2019, my dad did a ceremony where he paid my tuition fees for the spring semester. I’m immensely grateful for the freedom my parents have given me to experiment, to choose, and to figure out my dreams at my own pace. I’m going to remember that on the mornings when I can’t get out of bed.

情感 Relationships 👨‍👩‍👧

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跟爸爸妈妈在一起的时光是最快乐的。可是,快乐的时光总是那么的短暂啊。小时候,我觉得好女儿志在四方,向往着成为一个矫健的雄鹰,飞过天南地北,头也不回、勇往直前地闯天下。长大后才愈加发现,家是我最眷恋的港湾。似乎,暮然回首,那一场又一场考试,各式各样的申请,就是为了将我推上离您们越来越远的道路,一瞬间会很想哭。很多人都说父母子女一场就是一段渐行渐远的缘分,可是我坚信我们是例外。感谢您们让我明白成长虽艰难且不可避免,但依旧是奇妙、幸福的。所以,我就算舍不得您们也还是要长大呀。希望2019年第一次的道别我可以坚强,不要再流泪了。

  • To not cry when my parents are sending me off at the airport. Be stronger. Farewells are meant for teaching us how to better reunite.
  • Be a kinder, more peaceful person to friends and also to strangers. Be more considerate to those who love me. Often, we are careless to those who care for us the most. I would like to be less selfish and to get into the habit of thinking from the perspectives of others — make that into a first instinct!
  • Have more faith when God makes me wait. Let me see waiting as an opportunity to build my faith and to understand that there is a reason — 我想,有时候,上帝赐予我的礼物会有意晚一点递到我手中。也许,上帝只是为了更精心地绑一个蝴蝶结,让 ‘等待’ 抚平我的焦躁,好让我有一双更善于识别美好的眼睛。Thank you, Father. ❤

 

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May all your dreams & resolutions come true in 2019 too! 🌠🌠🌠

Lots of love,

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2018: An Autobiography of Seasons

The countdown of days to the end of the year starts with a burnt nose. As I am steaming my face, eyes closed in bliss, my head dips too far down the basin—nose first. The boiling hot water scalds the tip. When I whip my head back up, there’s a pimple-shaped red blotch on my face. My mom calls me Rudolph (“Roo-doll-fffff”) in a singsongy voice for a whole day.

I wear the blotch onto the plane, from one city to the next. In the sky, I think about the cities I love. My last days of 2018 have been spent in Taipei, slightly chilly, with a misty rain kissing the cheeks, spraying over a labyrinth of little streets, old roofs, and fat boulevards.

In many ways, 2018 can be an autobiography of cities. Washington, Cambridge (US), Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Seoul, Beijing, Cambridge (UK), London, Singapore, Taipei. They are inscribed within my stories. But, I like to think of 2018 more as an autobiography written in seasons.

春水 Springlike Eyes

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Saiho-ji, Kyoto

In March, Matthew Macfadyen kept saying in my head, You’ve bewitched me, body and soul. I would be eating an apple, washing my face, staring into space and his voice would start. Outside, it was still drearily cold. Somehow, I think of that as the first sign of spring.  The sudden desire to hear someone telling me urgently, or casually, or predictably, or not: I have to see you again.

Spring is feeling sprouts of warmth from between the cracks. When someone seems like the weather even amidst the springlessness of it. Even later, when the flowers came out, when in the thick of spring’s greenery, when I might have stopped looking, I knew spring began a long while ago in the interwoven frost and heat, in the first quickening. Someone’s 19th-century smile.

夏日 A Summer Day

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Tsinghua University, Beijing

My long, languid, baking hot summer seems almost like a midsummer night’s dream.

Summer is the season I grew up in from young, like a second skin. Life’s eternal equilibrium is heat. A temperature that I can wrap myself in but sometimes still shiver.

Summer comes in many shades. I fell in love with the rustling rice plants in a green square fenced between stout houses on my daily runs in Nagaokakyo, the water lilies and the sea of bowl-shaped leaves that crowd the ponds in Beijing, the mirror-like lake almost searing to the eye under the sun in forty degrees Celcius heat in Arashiyama. The matcha green soft serve, cold to the tongue, the milk green tea with black bubbles, and the green bean bumps of the popsicle I suck by the curb. The eddy of dark green tea leaves in the cup when I swirl it unconsciously, lifting it to my lips. A Sichuan opera performer doing bian (change) lian (face) in Lao She Teahouse, the striking, ruthless green mask briefly there before it vanishes. The flowering vines climbing the gray concrete walls of Huashiying hutong.

One of the happiest summers in my memory. Very very hot, but still evergreen.

秋籁 Autumn Songs

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Cambridge Station, Cambridgeshire

Fall writes itself in the margins of my mind. It always seems like one moment the world is summer and then the next moment winter has dawned on us all.

It’s in that shapeless space between us, the press of cotton silk against polyester nylon, between Tianyi in the halcyon days of summer and me in the depths of winter.

It’s Friendsgiving spent in Cambridge, UK. A friendship that traces its roots to days of sultry heat in classrooms with fans, lecture theatres with air-conditioning, and empty libraries soaked with the glare of the sun. Now, it’s a friendship across continents, nestled for a brief few days in the little town of Cambridge, where we huddle and squeal in front of a laptop, share one pair of slippers, finish a bucket of popcorn ten minutes into Fantastic Beasts 2, march all across town in search of Xu Zhimo’s rock, and collectively ignore the thick tome of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that Tianyi painstakingly borrowed for me and I completely forget to touch.

It’s the gothic spires of a chapel. The hymns soar, dancing in the curved ribs of the fan vaults and against the stained glass. In the patch of twilight framed by my drooping eyelids, I catch candlelights flickering against the curl of someone’s hair, the solemn flipping of pages, wraith-like visions dressed in red and white opening their mouths wide. Unearthly.

Please pinch me, I whisper to Tianyi, if I fall asleep. 

She shoots me a kind look that still manages to convey Don’t you dare.

But still. When we are all up and reciting Bible passages, I start swaying on the balls of my feet, head lolling. There’s a touch. Tianyi gently props me up.

冬阳 Winter Sunshine

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Glenstone, Maryland

My year now starts and ends with winter, bookended by the cold, the mist, the layers.

Winter is like the ouroboros, a circle of time that passes so fast that it’s almost like none passes at all. I close my eyelids. The year flips a page.

It ends on a hotel balcony in Taipei, the balustrades red like the Forbidden City, like Chinese New Year’s angpaos, like good luck.

It starts with a mortal lake, frozen over with ice, 15 miles outside of Washington, D.C. I’m sitting on a couch in a monastic, empty pavilion, reading Anne Carson’s annotations of Roni Horn’s works. It’s a thin, blue book that I finish in one sitting, pages turning in a fierce race against time. When I put it down, everyone else is gone. I race out, footsteps ringing, and see the bus waiting at the curb. Sorry, I apologize breathlessly to all the curious faces, but I can’t stop smiling.

Today, writing this, I think back to a page in that book I took a photo of.

years from now, these
notations in the address book, this frantic hand.

Years from now, these
words on an internet page, this wandering mind. these dancing fingers. this spilling heart. this reel of seasons.

Favorites

Favorite Things I Read This Year:

  • Novels — In A Free State by V. S. Naipaul, Elizabeth Costello by J. M. Coetzee, My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (will try to read it in Chinese too!), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  • 言情小说:侧侧轻寒的《簪中录》、Twentine的 《炽道》、丁墨的《挚野》、面北眉南的《嫡谋》
  • Short Stories — The Reading by Ivan Vladislavić, The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, State Change by Ken Liu
  • Screenplays — The Grand Budapest Hotel, (500) Days of Summer
  • Books re-read — The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, 关心则乱的 《知否?知否?应是绿肥红瘦》 ❤
  • Articles — On Becoming A Person of Color by Rachel Heng, The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma by Junot Diaz

Favorite Things I Watched This Year:

  • Feature films — Coco (2017), Pride and Prejudice (2005), 3 Idiots (2009), Ready Player One (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
  • Shorts — Curfew (2012), Stutterer (2015), 《年少有》李荣浩MV
  • Dramas — Reply 1988 (2015), currently watching 《知否知否应是绿肥红瘦 The Story of Ming Lan》 which just started airing on Christmas (based on one of my favorite Chinese novels!)
  • Reality TV — 《声入人心 Super-Vocal》 (2018) (Literally, my entire family is obsessed with this show!!! It’s a singing competition with 36 male — also, very good-looking — contestants from opera and musical backgrounds competing for 6 seats, with multiple rounds of evaluations, face-offs and strategic teaming in different formats, e.g. solos, duets, trios. The first season is still airing, but it’s all on Youtube. You can thank me later. ^_^)

Individuals I’m Thankful For:

  • All of you, reading this and maybe more. (✿◠‿◠)
  • 2018 is the first year I’ve charted in entirety on this blog, a full year’s worth of stories told in this tiny space. I hope to continue sharing my life through stories with each of you here in 2019.
  • This autobiography of seasons captures only some of the strongest strokes of feelings — broad in arcs, bold in colors. Many of you who have been a true blessing to my life (you know who you are!!!) have not been mentioned by name. To each of you, thank you for teaching me every day how to be a better friend, roommate, daughter, student, team member, and human being. ❤
  • Thank you, God, for weaving all these stories into my life — these people, these cities, and these seasons that make 2018.

Happy New Year! 🌟🌟🌟 May your 2019 be magical from spring to winter, full of warmth in the coldest days and wonder and faith when sweat pours down your back. 💓💓💓

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Lots of love, peace out 2018,

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Confronting My Worldly Fears

At some point in your life, this statement will be true: Tomorrow you will lose everything forever.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

At the most random of moments, I consider my own mortality. One such instance was as I was seated in the cozy office of Professor Racha Kirakosian, which contained books so numerous that they seemed to be spewing out from the shelves with a life of their own. Half an hour ago, I had bumped into Carissa outside Lamont as she was on her way to see our Hum 10 seminar professor. I took it as a sign from the universe.

Just being in Prof Kirakosian’s office, in the presence of someone whose interests and expertise range from German to Religion to Medieval Studies to Game of Thrones, someone so winsomely at ease, witty, and genuinely passionate about life, I felt almost ashamed of my own fears—those that emerged with the onset of sophomore year, creeping like vines over my humanities-centric class schedule (the next blog post!), over the obstinate, inarticulable aspirations I harbor, and harnessing my vulnerability to the capitalist onslaught on campus, emblazoned in two words: Recruiting Season.

As a freshman, cocooned in the bubble of the Harvard Yard, my days were largely buffered by a sense of exhilaration and lethargy, the four years of college unfurling before me like an unending yellow brick road. As a sophomore, I am now suddenly catapulted from the periphery of real-world concerns to the precipice of worldly success outside of college gates: the moneyed prestige of Wall Street, the ascendancy of Silicon Valley, coupled with the irrational but still visceral fear of unemployment.

I can’t recall the conversation between Prof Kirakosian, Carissa, and me in complete specificity—I just remember laughing a lot, feeling at intervals, a sense of wonder and the budding certainty that life can work out in magical ways for those faithful to what they love. The professor confessed, after I hesitantly voiced my fears, that she never expected to be doing medieval studies or to be where she was today, but it was all about following her instincts at every stage in life.

I think about it sometimes, she said, the fact that we don’t live forever. I ask myself if I want to be doing this today if I were to die tomorrow. 

There’s an army of people doing CS, she said, why force yourself to do that? 

I see you as someone constantly reinventing yourself, she said.

In that small room almost suspended outside of time, like being in an interstitial space between two selves coming of age, with the soft afternoon sun seeping in like egg yolk, I felt many things crack open over my head—the purpose of our individual humanity, the power of instincts, and how even as she said those words, I drew strength from what she saw in me.

Often, in a place like Harvard, I feel the simultaneous pull of opposing forces: the allure of worldly success and the devotion to growth in wisdom. On days like this, I am grateful for God’s gentle reminders and life’s role models.

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Professor Kirakosian ❤

Lots of love,

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