Essay season

Hello, everybody! It’s Charlie writing from Glasgow.

Having been here for nearly two months, I have started to finally settle in. School has become very busy but nevertheless extremely interesting. As a War Studies student, I have so far given presentations and written papers regarding topics like the Battle of Agincourt and the Battle of Yorktown, Human Security, Carl von Clausewitz, and, most recently, the Battle of Algiers. The vast differences between my studies here and my undergraduate degree have challenged me but I am finding myself to more often than not enjoy the reading, writing, and presenting.

Outside of class and studying, I have made time to explore Glasgow, meet people, and do some travelling around Scotland. Due to my love for the outdoors, I have been getting quite involved in climbing and mountaineering in the highlands. In addition, in a few weeks, once school is less busy, I am planning to go to Dublin to meet up with a few close friends.

The Roger M. Jones fellowship is proving to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The opportunity to be here and challenge myself to pursue a degree in the humanities is extraordinary and although I, at times, miss the States and family and friends, there is no place I would rather be.

Pictured here a couple of my friends during a recent trip we took to The Aonach Eagach–a ridge line traverse in the highlands. It was my first experience using crampons and an ice axe and it was only slightly terrifying.

Starting Off, Today

I was sitting here in the Detroit Ft. Wayne airport waiting for some way to start this archive. First impressions aren’t everything, but they might as well be. 

The Gods didn’t strike me with anything. The inside of my brain felt like a forest the day after it rains — even if there was a spark all the wood around was wet. I knew this all too well: frozen by stillness hunched over a blank page. A man then walked past, knocking over my coffee with his carry-on. I didn’t even look at him in the eye as he turned around to stand over me as I picked up the pulsating coffee gurgling onto the argyle carpet. Only then did I set to my computer with haste. I wish I would’ve thanked that man.

When I look back at college, I see it in flashes, naturally. A flash of me discovering the fellowship the end of my sophomore year. A flash to writing the personal statements on my mother’s couch. A flash from the interview in front of the board members. Receiving the acceptance email. Here I am. 

This is the memory warp of the “Roger M. Jones Fellowship” in my brain. If I am to access the “Edmond” warp, it will start with the sleepover we had in seventh-grade. Then going out to homecoming together, trekking the smokey mountains for 11 days, and so on, and so on. 

These flashes are what I’ve held onto, what my brain thinks are the family photo album or the box of money under the mattress to grab from episodes in my life. Today, though, I’m trying to focus on the tomorrows in between: A yeast-less conversation waiting for a bus with Edmond in the middle of January, or holding hands with my mom at the beach in Holland. I’m annoyed that I had to make up these last two scenarios. 

And yet in anticipation for my time in London, I was wishing away all of the tomorrows between from when I got accepted, to sitting at an airport waiting for my flight with half of a coffee.

During the last dinner I had with my mom last night, she told me in excitement over her plate of brown rice and fried cauliflower, “And tomorrow you’ll be having kids!”

How many ways are there to measure a tomorrow? And are these flashes of my life the dawns of “life” tomorrows? If this is my yard stick, then my year in London is one of these self-defined “days” in my life. I have made a day in my life with this opportunity. Maybe this is what a life is, living standard celestial days and tomorrows until an event, or a year, maybe even a decade of something, somewhere or someone is big enough to make a “day” in your life.

And so now I am thinking of tomorrow outside of planetary contexts, outside of a rotation of the earth. I am also thinking about what I can do to make more “days” in my life.

And I also thinking about how tomorrow I will be on a plane back to the states, with whatever it is I learned out here. 

Glasgow Uni

Hello everyone. This is my first post as one of this year’s Roger M. Jones Fellows. My name is Charlie Velis and I did my undergrad in Mechanical Engineering. I am now at the University of Glasgow in Scotland for a program in War Studies. Our classes begin tomorrow and although I am nervous, I am beyond excited!

The study of war and global conflict has always interested me and I feel very fortunate to now be studying it at this level. I look forward to sharing more about me, and this program, as this year progresses but in the meantime, here’s a photo of myself on a brilliant hike about 45 minutes north of Glasgow.

Goodbye, London

My year in London is coming to a close, and I’m overwhelmed at the idea of leaving. I  am sitting here on my bed, surrounded by stacks of loose-leaf paper, dog-eared books, cups of water and tea, blankets bunched up around my feet, trying to think of how to describe what it has meant to me. Sonia, I ask myself, what did you learn??

Here’s a few things:

  • Through living alone: what it means to deliberately choose to spend your time with the people that matter
  • Through reading challenging books from around the globe: my worldview is limited and I should eternally seek to unravel my assumptions and confront my ideas of “the way things are” at every opportunity
  • Through traveling: to see communities and individuals in shades of grey and always approach with kindness and empathy
  • Through attending pub trivia: I am really bad at it and should probably stop but won’t until I get to go to Harry Potter trivia and prove my worth
  • Through forcing myself out of my comfort zone, making a short film, and likely embarrassing myself for the ages: supportive friends, encouraging teachers, and a drive to keep trying can bring something out of you that seemed impossible
  • Through quiet days in grassy parks ruminating on gratefulness: true confidence means seeing the endless potential in yourself and the people around you, perceiving the beauty in your friends and family, and learning to be a better person from those you admire
  • Through working with actors that I could only dream of meeting: fame is probably not all it’s cracked up to be and maintaining intention, appreciation, and grounding in such a world is a feat worthy of high praise
  • Through discussions on political philosophy, filmic integrity, and artistic intention in class: subjectivity is not frivolous, but paramount
  • Through befriending folks from far-flung pockets of the world: kindness, passion, loneliness, love, and fussy mothers are universal

Our lives are bundles of moments that go as quickly as they came. I used to be the kind of person that perennially looks to the future, on to the next thing, and the next thing after that. I think part of that was because I was afraid of how much it would hurt losing something if I didn’t have something else to look forward to. I really suck at goodbyes and so I told my mind to say goodbye early, to ease the transition. This is not a fear that has left my system, but at the same time I’ve realized that the rust-red of the brick building across the street, or the smell of the London breeze coming in from the open window, or the quiet buzzing of the radiator, those aren’t things I will be able to experience when I think back. There is a value to being a part of the moment rather than always seeking to preserve it (which I recognize is a bit sanctimonious of me to be saying as a film student and someone that is writing a blog post about her experiences).

I guess it gets back to this question of what’s the point of all of this? Here’s what I think the point is – these people, this place, these moments, they gave my life fullness. It felt like I could do something really important to make the world a little bit better. This experience opened my eyes, in school and out, to the ways in which upbringing and culture can shape the way we see the world, the ways in which we understand danger and safety, necessity and luxury, happiness and worth. It gave me much needed perspective on who I am and what I would like to do in my time on earth.

I am now going to pass on this torch to the future fellows, who I know will have the same transformative experience I did. It seems like just yesterday, I was sitting around a panel of interviewers at the University of Michigan, explaining why I wanted to go to London to learn about film and media. It also seems like years and years ago. To the future fellows – recognize how special these moments are, even those that are especially difficult or uncomfortable or even lonely. Take full advantage of your new life to push the bounds of what you thought you could and could not do. And most of all, meet new people that challenge you – this is unavoidable and of utmost importance. I am so excited for you.

This year, I got to write a paper about politically revolutionary media in the digital age, direct and produce my own short documentary, write a short screenplay, produce a short film, work as a personal assistant on a Bollywood premiere, attend lectures at the most renowned universities in the world, work on a dissertation to investigate global oversight of digital platforms, meet people from around the globe who challenged my notions of nationhood, identity, political ideology, success, diversity, and what it means to feel fulfilled and valued. My scribbled list of goals for the year includes this one: “create something of value”. Through all of this, I did – these friendships. I am ever so grateful.

Reflections on London and being alone, as first term lies behind me

There’s something I wrote, on September 24th, 2018, as I was, for the first time, completely alone in my new city.

Today as I rode the Piccadilly line from South Kensington to Kings Cross, away from my parents and my last connection to my old home, I sat in a kind of terrified, numb stupor. Looking around the train car at the girl with houndstooth gray jeans and green hair (even on her eyebrows), the businessman in the neat black coat with hands folded politely in his lap, the young man not much older than myself standing by the door and nervously biting his nails, I came to realize something – not the universality of human beings, or the common ground of these everyday occurrences, or anything significantly positive or inspirational. Instead, I felt palpably in every bone, that this was not my city (at least yet). I felt like a stranger implanted into a new world, not so different on the surface but dizzyingly alien to me. The city hadn’t let me into its arms yet (but then again, how could it?). It was keeping me at an arms length, testing me and trying to discern whether I should be embraced or swallowed whole.

I knew it was only a year that I would be here, yet I felt like I was starting a new life. This terrified me. So, how does one transition from apprehensive, uncertain newcomer to self-assured, rooted local? How does one finally feel a sense of belonging?

For me, it came in various streams, not one by one, but intermingling with each other. When I felt that I could get from school to home without my Google Maps, I felt a glow in my chest the rest of the day. When I began to understand what in the world British folks were saying when they said “chockablock”, “cheesed off”, or “quid”, I felt like less of an outsider. When I found my favorite pasta place in London…well, that speaks for itself. But apart from small innocuous victories, what finally made me feel like I belonged was the communities I built and became a part of during my time here. People need people, and being alone was something I was scared of and completely unfamiliar with before September. Yet, in living alone in London and spending time with myself, I began to realize the value of time that you choose to spend with others. I have made friends that are Greek, British, Indian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Welsh (and American) who think about the world in such a different way than I do. I have become part of communities of people that I really love, so much that I choose to spend time with them when convenience speaks to me being alone. Being surrounded by people all the time in college, at home and outside, did not provide me the time to reflect on how much I value those around me and how my time was deliberately spent. Paradoxically, the discomfort of being alone has given way to the appreciation of self-reflection and the heightened gratitude and appreciation for the people I choose to surround myself with.

I’ve learned so much about myself here, and not in a cheesy, “I’ve completely changed who I am and become a 100% awesome person” way. I’m much of the same worrywart meticulous overthinker that I have always been. However, there are indelible understandings about the world and myself that this experience has facilitated and I am forever indebted to those who made this possible. I am quite certain that it has changed the trajectory of my life, for the better. I hope my next post to be about some of these learnings, but for now, I leave you here.

Thanks for reading!

– Sonia

First Semester Surprises

As I approach the last week of classes of my first semester, I want to reflect on some of the ways that my program has been different than I expected.

First of all, King’s College is a much more diverse place than I imagined. It makes sense—London is, after all, closer to Budapest than Ann Arbor is to the town I grew up in—but in the first few days I was overwhelmed by the amount of different languages and accents I heard. Half of my program is from overseas.

That said, there is also a surprising amount of Michigan here. In my first few days on campus, I met one classmate from Lansing, one who had gone to Wayne State, and one who had grandparents in Ann Arbor. A few weeks later, the Primark—think of a cross between Target and Kohl’s—had a wall full of Michigan gear. Hats, sweatshirts, beanies, all showing off the block M. No other schools, just Michigan. A man on the tube struck up a conversation, and it turned out he had graduated from Ross just a few years ago. Last year one of my professors was in Ann Arbor for a conference. And several bars have Founder’s All Day IPA on tap.

Every class I’m in is a seminar, something I’m very unaccustomed to as an engineering student. The point of the class is usually not to teach us a specific fact or idea, but rather to work together to illuminate and unpack the aspects of the books that interest us as a class. This requires a totally different kind of preparation and study—instead of just memorizing the material, we have to question it, dig into it, complicate it. And nobody ever knows where the discussion is going to go, least of all the seminar leader. I often feel like a kid who’s gotten his hands on his parents’ car keys and gone for a joyride without knowing how to steer.

One thing that really blindsided me about the program is that it’s not always primarily focused on books. In my class on the Arab Spring, we read several novels and some poems, but we also looked at blogs, films, social media posts, paintings, and music videos. Furthermore, our class discussions tend to reach beyond questions of literary technique and form to things like economics, politics, international relations, and human rights.

Despite this breadth of focus, people also focus on sometimes ridiculously specialized topics in their research. Have you ever wondered about the history of specific German words? Or the influence of radical Italian politics in 20th-century India? Or the influence that Classical mythology has had on Caribbean fiction? Then comparative literature might be the field for you.

Although it can be so specialized, there are moments of incredible connection. For instance, what do Glenn Gould, Luciano Visconti, Richard Strauss, and Dante have in common? According to Edward Said (and one of my instructors), it’s lateness—that is, an approach to artistic creation based on internal contradiction and refusal of conventional form. It’s these surprising and insightful moments that make this area of study worth it.

 

Season of Migration to the North

Apologies for the delay in updating the blog—too much has been happening in and out of classes for me to make the time to write it all down. Over the next couple of weeks, though, expect to hear a lot about what’s been going on. Here’s a little bit about a trip I took to Edinburgh:

As the semester continued, as each week I would finish my assigned hundreds of pages of readings just to start the next weeks, as the weather got colder and rainier, as I realized just how much there is to learn about comparative literature, I found myself spending less and less time outside the circuit of my flat, campus, and the library. Although I loved London, and still do, the city was losing its shine. Although London’s parks are numerous and beautiful, it’s hard to enter a state of serene contemplation when behind the sight of trees you can see construction cranes, behind the sounds of rustling leaves you can hear jackhammers, and behind the fragrance of flowers you can smell the ever-present city odor of exhaust, garbage, and cigarette smoke.

All of these are reasons why I found myself sitting backwards on a train bound for Edinburgh, Scotland. A quick aside about the trains in the U.K.: they’re incredible. Everywhere I’ve lived in the US I’ve felt a deep, primal need for a car, but here a car is almost a liability, when trains can get you anywhere you want to go faster, without traffic, and free to enjoy the incredible seaside views.

Edinburgh is one of the few places I’ve been that actually took my breath away on the moment of arrival. I felt like the lead in a coming-of-age movie; I could feel the camera, low, angled upward at my face as I climbed the last few steps, catch my reaction then pan around and up to reveal: an enormous medieval castle! On a sheer rock cliff, right in the middle of town! And below it, a shockingly green park deep in the valley! Behind it, the twisting streets and majestic buildings of an ancient capital city! And in the distance (yet still within walking distance) a looming, brooding dormant volcanic peak: Arthur’s seat!

Edinburgh had sights enough to keep me busy for days, but the thing that I enjoyed the most was the atmosphere, the sense of community that London only ever achieves partially. This was most evident at the Royal Oak, a tiny local pub, no bigger than my flat, which hosted musicians every night. I went there multiple times, and each time I saw some of the same people. The musicians were seated at a table right in the middle of the crowd, and at one point passed a guitar around so that myself and the other patrons could play songs of our own. I still haven’t found a place like this in London, and I’m not sure I ever will. Check out Ciaran McGhee, who I caught on two of the nights I spent there, for a taste of what it was like.

British cuisine is an easy target, so I won’t get into describing the details of defining dishes like beans on toast (exactly what it sounds like), fish and chips (the world’s most glorified fast food), or mushy peas (which actually sound somehow worse than they taste). One of those easy punchlines was, until this trip, haggis. It’s a traditional Scottish dish made of sheep heart, liver, and lungs, mixed with oats, and cooked inside the animal’s stomach. Having recently gone pescatarian, I wasn’t sure I would even try it during my trip, but curiosity, and the justification that all rules are off during vacations, got the better of me. I found myself using that justification over and over again that weekend—as long as you kept your mind on the taste, haggis is quite good.

When I got on my train back home, I felt renewed. Refreshed by the sea breeze that whips across Arthur’s Seat, inspired to my studies by the 200-ft monument to the writer Walter Scott, and full to the bursting from all the haggis. I sped—sitting backwards again—towards London, but in the dark it almost felt like I was being pulled forwards, out into the highlands, outer islands, and beyond. I hope I’m luck enough to return someday.