The Glow at the End of the World

It’s the last official day of my undergraduate life!

I am not good with goodbyes. And after such a long hiatus from blogging, I am not too sure if I am still good with this writing thing. But I thought that today of all days would be a good day to pause, to reflect and to think.

At the start of this semester, I wrote a rather melancholy reflection on how things in USP had changed for me, and how it was time to move on with life. What has changed in the intervening weeks since? By the university calendar, it’s Week 13, something like ten weeks since that post (in some respects, it feels like ten months have passed).

But memory is such a strange and paradoxical thing, isn’t it? We are a collection of all we remember: from practical things, like knowing how to add numbers; to the more bittersweet moments, like the last time you held your grandmother’s parchment skin.

In many ways, we are what we remember. And yet, what we remember also changes with each remembering; each remembering affected by our present concerns and states of mind. What remains of us, if we are made of memories that are continually tweaked and altered? Such strange creatures of temporality we are.

What is the point in looking back?

Goodbye-Phobic

To be honest, I have no answer. I am simply rolling with my thoughts at 11.50pm on the last day of my last week of this last semester in my undergraduate life. I hate goodbyes, and I am not good with them. A friend laughed at my complaint on Monday, and told me to “just embrace it man”. But I cannot bring myself to contemplate transience too much. Growing up in a shophouse and knowing that one day these things, this universe will pass into intangible memory, makes you shy from goodbyes, or makes you awkward around endings and passings.

I think I am phobic of endings. I studiedly avoid them. Where some would revel in, or memorialise “last lecture of uni” or “last bus ride to school” in a picture or a video, all I do when these moments strike me is to nod and smile. Life goes on, after all, in a continual, unending series of openings and closings. How many pictures can you collect of your “last Yong Tau Foo as an undergraduate”, “last time in LT11”, “last essay written for life”, “last day of formal education”, “last picture taken of the last word written in last essay”…and so on?

How badly do we really want to cling to the past? The pragmatic side of me twitches at this hoarding tendency.

Sure, it’s nice to look at old photographs, to enter a world once inhabited, but I am reluctant to be locked in a static nostalgia – not because I am a cynic, but precisely because I know that I am too much of a sentimental fool. Even as a child, sunsets used to fill me with an indescribable sadness – another day had ended!

Goodbye-Pragmatic

I would very much rather not do goodbyes, if i had a choice. And yet, goodbyes and endings are important. They are signallers and milestones of closure. Like I admonished a freshman yesterday, scandalised, don’t you feel naked if your essay doesn’t have a conclusion? It’s like having a hamburger without a bottom bun!

Everything is going to fall through!

Just as beginnings have powerful symbolic value in giving us hope, I believe, against my most instinctive emotions, that endings have their own configurations of meanings.

Endings are important for many reasons, and you could probably think of twenty thousand more if you sat and thought about it for a bit- but for me goodbyes are important because they serve as necessary reminders of transience. That things will not be as they are. It gives an urgency to whatever we have in the present moment, it reminds us not to be complacent. And even though the savour of the late afternoon sunlight, or the slow tenderness of a lover’s kiss, or the joy of scaling a mountain, or an unexpected connection with another human being passes, it is in part the immediacy and short-lived-ness of these things that make them so precious.

Chocolate is nice. Attraction and being attracted is nice. Reading a good book is nice. But having to do these things forever, having them too easily, dulls how strongly and how exquisitely we feel for them.  Things pass, people go out of our lives; there are gaps and smouldering craters – perhaps so that new moments can enter. If the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out 65 million years ago, you wouldn’t be reading this while waiting for your bus! We are all such strange creatures of temporality.

And so, while i don’t want to say goodbye, I see how important they are too. New horizons call; they are calling all the time. To look inward and backward all the time, afraid of the new, is a path that leads eventually to stagnation and death.

A Defiant Glow

And so, as I end this last day in my university life, how do i feel?

Perhaps a twinge of melancholy, although I wonder if that is simply a relic, an echo of all the sounds which I have been listening to all over social media. I wonder if it’s me feeling the melancholy, or just merely reflecting it, from all the other noises on the interwebs; or perhaps I have learnt to very carefully and convincingly box up the sentimental fool in me already…

No, it isn’t a greyness I feel. I refuse to feel that kind of crippling sadness. It gets us nowhere. I rummaged around, trying to look for a word to describe what I felt. I even went to relook what I had written near the start of this final semester. And to my surprise, it concurred with what I have been feeling all day:

And yet, in spite of myself, I like to believe that this is little cause to despair….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.”

And indeed, as this “last” day finally closes around me, I recall the events and the people whom I’d met in the past few days, out of sheer luck and coincidence. A JC teacher who was in NUS for a course, musing about my newfound ambitions to one day be a historian of Singapore. Juniors who told me the (small) impact I had made on their writing journeys, and how strange it would be to not see me on campus anymore (haha, joke’s on you, I’ll be back in NUS soon). Freshmen Peer Mentees who vociferously argued and debated with a Year 4 about what should be done to Amos Yee (there may still be hope for USP, if my peer mentees aren’t afraid to try a little unkindness). Friends who told me about all the memories we had shared, all these years past.

I do not wish to speak about goodbyes any further, or any turning to new horizons, because that is really more the province of “influencers” and ah – this new subgenus – micro-influencers. I have written about these things at length, and the future is still a distant blot in the horizon of the mind’s eye. I shall review only what I know.

What I Know

And what do I know? I know that these four years have been a very special time for me. They were times of continuous late nights yes – and in one painful semester, a time of (at least one) five-page essay(s) every week, for twelve weeks straight. They were times of great uncertainty, anxiety and confusion, not just intellectually, but emotionally and socially as well. Living on campus, and then overseas, amongst strangers who sometimes had very different cultures and ways of life, took some getting used to.

But they were also times of phenomenal growth, precisely because I was at times thrown into the deep end, and left to swim for myself. These were four years in which I have come to realize the terrible freedom and responsibility of learning for oneself. That while one can heap the blame on instructors, institutions and frameworks, it was ultimately how badly you wanted something. How far you were willing to go in pursuit of a dream, a vision, a destination. Ask not what USP/FASS/NUS can do for you, but what you can do for yourself.

Often, grandiose ambitions fell short, but my time here in USP has taught me also that failure doesn’t have to be equated with defeat. It means perhaps you just try again tomorrow, or next week, or the next paper. I have learnt to meet my successes and surrenders, and treat these impostors with pinches of salt, with laughter, with equal measure.

Emotional Nourishment

And why? Because in the end, I think it is not the grades that count. It is the people you have met along the way that give life and meaning to our university experiences.

I realize that in the end, the things that matter are not the numbers nor the grades etched into your transcript. Because while an ‘A’ can make you smile, the truth is that that kind of glow doesn’t last you very long. An A on your transcript is like emotional fast- food. It can only last so long. What would it matter five years from now if i got a ‘good’ red number on a few sheets of typed words?

What would matter, what I will remember five years from now, i think, are the friends I made along the way. The ones I shared my most vulnerable moments with. The ones I lost, for reasons we both don’t fully understand. The ones who brightened my day, and whose days I brightened, with a smile, a word, or a hug. The ones who I sat late into the night – at a windowledge, at Town Green; over beer, over tea, over wine, over coffee. The ones whom I went for bleary 8am tutorials with, or marvelled at the environmental history of potatoes with (don’t ask…okay if you ask I can tell you a story).

In a recent lecture on Memory, Heritage and History, MP pointed out that oftentimes, the ‘soul’ of a place seemed to vanish with the people who once used to inhabit it. Without people going about their daily lives, preserving a space and its uses, we are left with shells that are not souls. We are left with re-enactments and little tinny plaques trying to retell what once was. Ghosts that have no warm, corporeal, three-dimensional bodies. We have a groaning, gaping tunnel that replaced the old redbrick National Library, and a nation of entrepreneurs who have learnt how to abuses exploits commercialise manufactured nostalgia without context or character. It is the people that animate a space, that make it into a place (geographers can kick me here; I concede that my terminology is admittedly flabby).

But I also believe that it is also the people who give pungent flavour and colour to our memories of a time, a historical moment too.

And at the end of this semester, at the end of this strange journey that was only four years young, but which felt like a whole other life altogether, I feel that it is the people I have met and encountered along the way which have made this adventure so special, so precious, so memorable.

Where The Dice Landed

I still remember the shirt I wore 4(!) years ago, on the first day of my first semester at University. By the standards of my more indoctrinated and imprisoned fashion-conscious self today, it was a cheap ugly shirt.

But I had bought it for the words it bore:

Let the dice fall where they may”.

Where have the dice landed, after all these years? I suppose it depends on who you ask, and what you choose to see. If you look for gaps and deficiencies, you will never be happy, no matter how many instagram pictures you take, no matter how much you spend contorted for some #aesthetic.

I like to think, howeveer, that if you look for fullness and richness, you will find it in abundance in the simplest of places. In an afternoon spent staring at a printer with a good friend, or a cheap Macdonalds cone. And perhaps even find eternity in a grain of sand. It’s a far cheaper way to feel happy, in any case.

Me? I think back to all the conversations and kindness I have received from friends, from juniors (of course, these two categories overlap), from teachers and mentors (of course, these three categories overlap too). All things considered, I think, I feel like I am rich beyond measure. How can you photograph warm laughter, rich as deep mahogany, bubbling out like a wellspring from your belly? What filter could you place on satisfaction, rising strong and quiet after long days and nights of research and writing? How do you freeze the snug glow that comes from old friendships

I cannot. I have only been lucky enough to experience it, fully and deeply, with all the senses of my body, all the capacities of my mind.

It is almost time to go now.

“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.”

And indeed, there is a glow in my heart, as I finally come to the end of this little adventure known as my university life. .

  

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