It’s my last semester at the University!
I suppose I should have written up an entry on the eve of the New Year, to send off the old one. Or an(other) entry on the New Year, to muse on my hopes for the nascent one. But in the contrarian spirit of deliberate sloth, I decided to hold off on typing anything until now.
Over the course of the past week, as we completed the ritual celebrations and ceremonies that bury the old year and herald the new one (“Now the old king is dead, long live the king.”), there have been many thoughts in my head, too complex and too knotted to properly sieve and distill into a few choice words or sentences.
We weave realities out of words. And I suppose I was still unsure of the reality I wanted to craft out of 2017. 2016 is still to difficult to write about, both for personal and academic reasons (I mean, can u believe they spent so much time and attention on that stupid ape?! I meant Trump, not Harambe).
Today’s entry, the first 2017 entry by mantarui, is hence a
short meandering reflection on starting the school year, because a teacher-mentor once told me I should use my words to ‘give hope’. I’m not sure about hope. But I can only offer some thoughts for you to munch on while you take your morning dump. And hopefully what you take in through your eyes here will be more worthwhile than what you put out through other orifices.
I checked into my college residence on Sunday afternoon with a strange mixture of melancholy, relief and frustration. Speaking to friends from my batch, I realised the feeling was not an isolated one, although it was difficult to understand this complex cocktail of emotions.
Four years in the university have left us all shaken and stirred, not unlike Bond’s favourite dry martini. I never thought I’d be hesitant to return to the wonderful, adventure that is school – but as I moved in, perhaps for the last time, I was unsure if I still wanted to be here. Something was calling now, and its cry was increasingly insistent.
In the eye of the vivid imagination, there is a strange glow in the horizon, beyond these youthful foothills of life. Adulthood and all its attendant responsibilities and anxieties beckon. Having to start this semester meant implicitly accepting the beginning of the end, in more ways than one. Already you hear of friends or cousins getting engaged, getting their BTOs. Getting jobs and spouses, as if they were the most important affectations in the world. Soon, you can’t help but think, I’ll have to find these Adult Things too, and maybe land a 5.5k salary.
And then, on the other side of the spectrum, listening to the snatches of conversation by faceless juniors – in the lifts, the lobby, the Dining Hall – I couldn’t help but be further gripped by a sense of distance. Their concerns, aspirations and anxieties seem so removed from mine (but perhaps that’s how it always is with human beings).
Once, this might have been my place, my home-away-from-home, my people. The site of the coolest conversations, “HTHTs”, “late-night suppers” and “movie marathons”. All the fun campus life that was promised, all the things that are/were supposed to make your university life so “rich and fulfiling”, if you believe the posters and the discourse propagated by the cool kids…
No, I don’t consider myself a boring person. I think I have simply floated a sufficient distance from the locus of Happening Campus Lives to gain some perspective. I am beginning to understand why my seniors had always seemed to fade from the life of the campus once they hit their final years: there were simply other things that interested, amazed and intrigued them. Once, USP was the Center – all the kind, interesting people and all the fascinating classes that opened the mind. Not that anything has changed dramatically there-it’s just that I have since discovered the existence of other galaxies, realities, and (social) circles.
It is a bittersweet feeling. On one hand, i am now quite gloriously alone – recognizing so few of the new faces in this old place, I was no longer obliged to say ‘HELLO’ and make meaningless small talk so often in the lift (“Oh, first day of school? What mods are you taking this sem? Oh I’m doing Thesis. On the Zoo. Because I like animals. No, I’m not going to be a teacher…”).
On the other hand, I am also quite gloriously alone – my networks, circles, and interests are now far more distributed in time and space. Physically, I am still in this world, this vertical galaxy that is Cinnamon College, but not really of it anymore.
Resolutely, I haven’t gone to the Dining Hall for dinner yet. The horror isn’t in the taste of the food, the horror is in the taste of routine. And of course the sheer mass (mess) of happy cheery poster-perfect Humanity, the noise of unsuspecting juniors going about their halcyon university days, the strange towgay/beansprout-soy smell of the place. I think it’s like walking down Orchard Road at Christmas, or Chinatown on CNY, and marvelling (being repulsed) at the opulent, determined happiness of these places. The chatter can be so overwhelming sometimes.
It’s almost time to leave, perhaps. I appreciate a little better Heathcliff near the end of Wuthering Heights, his eyes fixed on another world; or Azaro at the start of The Famished Road, ready to be called back to the spirit world.
It is my last semester at the University. There is a part of me that wants to stay on forever -what could be better than waking up everyday at 10am, to go to class dressed more or less in any fashion you want, to take your time to learn your thing and the space to explore your interests? Where else could you learn about Language, Culture and ‘Native’ Peoples? Or the Evolution of Vietnam as a Nation? Or the Sources of Singaporean History? Where else would you have the luxury of a midday nap, and then have nothing to worry about but reading a book? Where else will you be appreciated for being contrarian and clever with your words? (No, Tinder doesn’t count, that’s where the weirdoes are)
And yet there is a part of me that has grown through, grown out of, all these things. Once, there would have been nothing better than to watch Spirited Away in the floor lounge til 3am in the morning, with a clot of new-found friends from Orientation Camp. Or laughing and gossiping as we ate cheese fries til 3am in the morning (and that, boys and girls, is how you earn your Freshman 15). Those were lovely seasons in the sun – but somehow, or somewhere, or somewhen; just as some people come and some people go, these seasons have come and passed.
A Quickening in the Spirit
Treasure them, the Adults always intone, you will never have these days again. There’s a part of me that always rebels against truisms, and the Advice of Adults. There are only so many times you can say ‘OMG I AM HAVING IT SO GOOD YASSSSSS’. And even the most beautiful avenues and corridors begin to look dull if you walk down them too many times.
I have always been an itchy traveller, hungry for new textures to the fabric of reality. Imagined or real, dictated or natural, I cannot help but feel I am nearing the rightful end of another chapter in life. Like the unexplainable pull or itch or ache that compels bison, birds and butterflies to voyage thousands of kilometres on epic migrations, something is wriggling inside my head. It is an idea, that I don’t belong here so much anymore; a quickening in the spirit that suggests old skin(s) needs to be sloughed off soon.
Finishing with a Glow
And yet, in spite of myself, I like to believe that this is little cause to despair. Some people have bucket lists for their final semesters. Sometimes it involves eating from every stall in the university. Sometimes it involves taking pictures with old friends from all across the years. Sometimes it involves sleeping under the stars at Town Green. Me, I’ve never been good with transience, or goodbyes; I freeze in the headlights when confronted with the fact of endings.
There’s a sense that we must all go out with a bang, otherwise it’s not a good ending. More often than not, people go out by politely closing the door, and switching off the lights, because that’s how Singaporeans are.
Me? I would like my last semester at university to finish with a glow – not a grey, anaemic flicker of the screen, nor a thunderous, acrimonious burning of bridges – no, a glow. I would like to share a glow, so that when I am finally gone from this place, I will carry with me the memory of deep, trusting friendships formed, and my juniors remember me well.
Little Orbs of Light
And so I start this final semester with a few words. Not resolutions, because it’s so easy to dismiss resolutions. A few words, which are really little orbs of light in the sometimes overwhelming, swampy and frigid darkness of the uncertain future.
Patience: Not only with other people, but first with myself. That I am still learning, always learning, and thus mistakes, even horrendous ones, will be inevitable. But if we don’t make mistakes, we aren’t learning. We aren’t doing interesting enough things. Mistakes are little detours and ruptures that force us into adventures we would never otherwise have. I seek to be patient: patient enough with myself (and others, of course) to make mistakes, and to improve, slowly but surely. Imagine if all the builders of Rome, or the Pyramids, had thrown up their hands on the first day just because they’d only managed to move one stoneblock into place…All great things take time. Even spectacular failures.
Kindness – I know, I know, I wrote an article once about trying a little unkindness. But after four years in the University, I have learnt the immense value of kindness. Given enough effort and/or the right combination of genes, anybody can be smart and/or good-looking. But as a veteran of bruising intellectual pissing matches (both giving and receiving), and painful essays, I have learnt how cutting and dangerous a word in the wrong-right place can be. Conversely, I have learnt how powerful, affirming and strengthening a word in the darkest times can be as well. As a semi-professional retired Online Keyboard Warrior, I have cut far too many people in my time here at the University; but as a mentor, Writing Assistant and a friend, I have also lifted many people from their despair and panic. Anybody can be righteous prick. You just have to assume you’re right/victimised, and everyone else is wrong/oppressing you. Empathy and consideration and compassion take more practice, but pay off far more richly and satisfyingly, for everyone. I want to be a blessing to everyone I meet, as much as I can.
Gratitude, because the deeper I step back and evaluate this consumerist society we live in, the more I see there will be no end to dissatisfaction and the emptiness at the centre of our lives, if we do not resist the endless lure of more, more, MORE. How often have you ever seen a commercial tell you ‘ENOUGH’? We have been bred to be perpetually dissatisfied, especially these silly Chinese people. We have learnt to measure our self worth by numbers and comments from people we barely know. There is never enough, and for every mountain there is always a higher mountain. Who ever said we have to climb mountains, anyway? Sometimes I am sickened by the sheer waste, at the planned obsolesence of our society. I was horrified last semester doing a study on how a plastic cup used for no more than five minutes can spend months being manufactured. I want to resist the shocking cultures of waste and consumerism that have bled into our lives too. I want to be happy with myself. In my small way, I want to fight this senseless subliminal materialism. I want to count what I have, instead of mope about what I don’t. I want to be enough for myself.
Hope. I have learnt in 2016, through an unfortunate and painful series of personal encounters, that hope is like fire. Untamed, it can rage like a terrible forest fire. Too much hope can break a man’s spirit. So the hope I carry in me is contained in a small little lantern. I shall tend to it carefully, a light that will animate all that I do in the coming weeks and months. A quiet fire that burns small, but keeps burning. It is that simple, unthinking, unswerving species of hope that has brought me across seemingly interminable darknesses, up freezing, muddy mountains. Hope – that even in the face of apparently insurmountable titans, things will work out in the end.
Four years ago, on the first day of my first semester at University, I wore a shirt that said “Let the dice fall where they may”. And in spite of my weariness and wariness as a Year 4, burned too often by the vicissitudes of my academic, social and emotional life, I still believe that on the whole, everything will be alright.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
– Max Ehrmann, 1927