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.

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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.

Paul Reggentin: An Introduction

Hi, this is Paul. I’m one of the Roger M. Jones Fellows this year. Along with Sonia, I’m studying in London. I’m taking an MA course in Comparative Literature from King’s College London, which starts tomorrow. Here’s a quick update on my first week in London.

The first thing I did in London was fall asleep. I set a 30-minute alarm; when that woke me up, I set another, and, after that, another. In total, a 90 minute nap.

In my defense, I had just been on a red-eye flight from Orlando, a flight on which I was the only person not a member of a family fresh off of a week at Disney World. Out of the many dozens of children on that flight, some were happy to be returning home, some were sad to be leaving Disney, some were excited to be on an airplane, some were bored to be on an airplane with nothing to do, and some had to use the bathroom, but all were expressing their feelings clearly. I was also seated one row in front of two infants.

It’s a weak excuse, sure. It’s hard for me to justify doing the one thing I can do anywhere in the world in a city that offers any number of things I can’t do anywhere else. But eventually I did get out of bed and into the city.

The first thing I noticed, which looks foolish now that I type it out, is that London is a really big place. Not only is it big, it’s sprawling. There’s no organization to the streets whatsoever. They make abrupt turns, split, merge, become suddenly one-way, and, in addition to all that, none of them are pointed in the same direction. As a mere pedestrian in the middle of such chaos, I am nearly always disoriented. One benefit of the constant confusion, though, is that I’ve wandered down many interesting streets with many interesting names. Names like Garlick Hill, Threadneedle Street, Limeburner Lane, Puddle Dock. Just outside the financial district, I found a series of streets named Milk Street, Wood Street, Cloth Street, and Oat Lane, which I learned had retained their names since they served as medieval markets selling those goods.

I found myself tripping over history many times throughout the week. Entering an art museum on a quiet square one afternoon, I spotted a sign reading “Roman Amphitheater: Basement”. Down two flights of stairs were, in fact, the foundations of the amphitheater from the era when London was a Roman colony. I also ran across one of the few remaining buildings that survived the Great Fire of 1666, the gravesite of Daniel Defoe, the house where Samuel Johnson composed the first English dictionary, and, just behind a massive glass-and-steel bank headquarters, a section of the city wall built by the Romans.

Every place in this city is hiding generations of history. I can’t wait to spend a year both uncovering the past and working towards my future.

Curious updates, nuanced feelings from Barcelona

Dear friends,

I hope you’re all reading this post in good company, or good spirits. I’m writing you from Barcelona, Spain, where I’m spending the last bit of vacation before I return to London to pack my things up and head home for a couple of weeks. I am, however, leaving a significant amount of items and clothes in London, as I plan on returning to the city, or at least this part of the world, in one year’s time. The goal for my future is to start a PhD in the fall of 2019, preferably at a UK or German institution, combining philosophy, health, international development, and migration (a bit wide-ranging, but I’ll find a way to make it work). I also hope to continue a career in music outside of my work and studies, and I see the European region being really conducive to fitting my combined interests well.

As for the next year, I’ve been able to secure funding for a research project in San Salvador, El Salvador. I will be working at a human rights organisation, Cristosal, conducting (or moreover learning how to conduct) a research project to study health access for internally displaced peoples, those who are displaced by ongoing violence (domestic, police, gang, etc.) in the city. This opportunity has worked out perfectly, for I can combine what I’ve learned from theory in political philosophy and ethics into a practical setting. I see El Salvador as a place where human rights do not exists only for the elite liberal thinker to ponder upon, but instead for the people to utilise out of pure necessity. This project will last about ten months.

I’m not sure when I’ll be turning this blog over, but it will be soon. As such, I’ve created a new blog on my own site, so you can follow writings that may be similar to what I’ve written here at: https://curiouschroniclesest2018.wordpress.com. It took me a while to come up with the title, The Curious Chronicles, but I think this is a good way to show that my writings will tell not only a story but try to offer insights (perhaps even philosophical insights) into my experiences as I reflect on what I’ve been through and what I will have been currently going through. I’m sure that ample thoughts will be bubbling up from inside even months after I leave London, especially if those thoughts are instigated and poked by the raw and experiential times that I may be having in San Salvador.

Although sharing my location on social media is a bit dangerous, I see the potential benefits of meeting up with friends as weighing out any unforeseen risk. Hence, I’ll be in SE Michigan (Detroit, Ann Arbor) from the 25th through the 28th of September, so if anyone would like to meet up for a coffee, tea, food, walk, chat, etc., I will be around.

* * *

Just to start on some final reflections (it’s a bit difficult to form valid, fully-formed thoughts whilst traveling), I can’t help but feel a growing sense of necessity to poke around any ideas I find within my mind, to not let them sit too comfortably in any fold of my brain, such that they gather dust from sitting solid in my mind for too long. If anything, my studies have taught me how to dig, and have given me quite a large and agile spade with which I can do so.

In reading a bit of Nancy Scheper-Hughes (the epilogue from the end of her book, Death Without Weeping), she spent some time talking about her husband and the type of person he was. He worked as a social worker, and Nancy an anthropologist. A line that struck me from NSH was how she noted (please forgive my less-than-accurate paraphrasing) that her husband simply did not have the skeptical attitude or imperative for justice that was necessary for an anthropologist to have. Although I can’t really manage the nuance that NSH had, I must say that she did a wonderful job of showing that the lack of this imperative for justice that her husband lacked was not a bad thing. Rather, she was simply saying that he was better at being with people who were going through rough times, and helping them through, where NSH was taking these experiences and turning them into larger issues that required someone fight to change them.

This line struck me because I think I feel the same sense or requirement for justice that NSH felt as an anthropologist. I’m not sure how this sense will manifest itself in my later life, but I have no doubt that the path I’m on will lead me towards taking this sense of justice forward into practice.

With that being said, I think I’m going to leave the post here for the moment. The sun is out in Barcelona and I’ve got little time to enjoy it, so I’m off to be outside for a little while 🙂

Hopefully I’ll get one more post in before I can turn the blog over, and make sure to check out my new blog (still under construction, but the link will remain the same) if you want to continue to follow my travels / studies!

Much peace,
Jeffrey

Spill-over Thoughts on Death, Camp Kesem, and Cancer

Dear friends,

I’ve just finished an essay for my Illness module, and I chose to write about death. Specifically, I tried to answer the question, “Is death tyrannical?”

This question was inspired by a short fable written by Nick Bostrom, called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where Bostrom writes mainly about how he views ageing to be the fictional dragon-tyrant of his story. I took the metaphor a little further and asked myself if death itself could be tyrannical. I thought I would have enough space within the word limit to work in most of my thoughts, however I was surprised as to how little space I ended up having. Hence, I had some spill-over thoughts that didn’t make it into my essay, but I thought were worth sharing.

I won’t bore you with what I ended up writing on for the actual essay, but there was one topic I wanted to write about for which I couldn’t find a good spot, and that is my time with Camp Kesem. I have written about camp in an older post, but I don’t think I devoted too much time to explaining the matter. In short, so you don’t have to go back to that post, Camp Kesem is a student-run organisation that provides a week-long summer camp for kids whose parents have been affected by cancer. The kids go free to camp, and the counselors raise the money necessary to put on a fun-filled week of camp. We use this time to let the kids get away from their lives at home, to be the centre of attention, and to give them a second family to turn to in good times and in bad. A fun little quirk about this camp is the fact that we all go by fake names – my name’s Spice, and there are names ranging from Gumbo, to Private Hurley, to High Ballistic Squid, to Snoopy, and Bud… We just like to have fun, I guess.

Naturally with a camp hosting kids who have all had to experience cancer in their lives, it’s not uncommon for a camper to have lost one or both of her parents to this malady. These kids have to deal with death at an age when they have absolutely no reason nor necessity to think about what death means to them. This forced encounter with mortality is but a nightmare for some kids, especially when they’re old enough to have been able to fully, autonomously loved their parents, yet young enough to not know why they only come home to one parent after school. Perhaps it may be that all they can feel is sadness, and when that sadness is not justified in any way, but only hurts so deeply as what a lost loved one can cause, this child may feel total agony.

In Bostrom’s fable, there comes a time when a little boy shows up at a town hall meeting, where the meeting is in place to discuss what the society should do with the dragon-tyrant who keeps killing people daily. Some say that the dragon should stay, because having the dragon (ageing) in this society is an unfortunate yet necessary, defining part of humanity. But the boy has a different opinion, as shown in this excerpt:

~~

“I want my granny back,” said the boy.

“Did the dragon take your granny away?”

“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his large frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. She said that we would make a little house out of gingerbread and little gingerbread men that would live in it. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon… The dragon is bad and it eats people… I want my Granny back!”

~~

Oftentimes, we may feel angry at death because it may be so cruelly ripping away our loved ones from our lives, when we mean to make plans with them, when we hope for a future together. This is so utterly painful, especially when those who death takes from us have not completed what we believe to be the proper ‘shape’ of a life (e.g. when a child outlives her parents).

As is the state of biomedicine, we don’t have yet the technology that can stave off death forever. Hence we have to come up with some way to console ourselves in learning how to cope with this inevitability. Some turn to religion, others to philosophy, some simply turn to a community such as Camp Kesem.

In the middle of the week at camp, we have a day that’s called “Empowerment,” where the campers and counselors alike get to share their experiences with cancer. This day tends to lead to a lot of self-reflection, bonding, and shed tears. Of course, if a family member dies, we are totally justified in missing them, in crying over them, in being angry or emotional as to why they may have had to leave our lives early. Death of a family member terribly, utterly sucks. (There’s no place for an elegant word in the former sentence.)

I was trying to figure out, then, how to find some sort of good in death, or some sort of way to lift anyone up who has lost a parent, grandparent, or other loved one to cancer. Where is the good in death? Perhaps, I thought, when death is inevitable, it allows us to cherish who we’re with for the time we’re with them. But when they leave us, we feel a giant void in our lives that should be filled by one person only, who cannot ever come back to fill that void.

When mourning the loss of a loved one, we look for them, and they are nowhere to be (physically) found. However, we forget to look in one of the most important places we could look, which is inside ourselves. Genetically speaking, we are literally half of each of our parents, but moreover, we forget that we are, in some aspect, a representation and embodiment of what came before us. Our parents are as much a part of us as we are a part of them (as hard as that may be for some readers to realise or believe). So at Empowerment, I felt compelled to remind my fellow campers and counselors alike – that no matter how much we miss our parents, they’re still with us, within ourselves.

Here’s where I believe the tyranny of death doesn’t reach: after death, humans tend to show up in other things around them (this sounds creepy but it shouldn’t), whether it be a piece of music they composed, something they wrote, or, most importantly, their kin and their friends. The beautifully innate social nature of humans tends to be exemplified in death, and I believe that this is at least some sort of good, some sort of freedom, that we can find through experiencing death in our lives.