To Amherst: This Too Shall Pass

(Anqi Cao)

I am back at the same old Amherst again. But this time is quite different from the previous ones – realizing not only that the Socials were torn down but also that this is my final semester, that the last round of everything is about to happen, is more emotional than I expected. Seeing those young, fresh faces sitting on the quad made me momentarily recapture my old freshman self four years ago, setting foot for the first time in America, with the same hopeful, restless eyes, eager to demonstrate that I was capable of anything and everything.

Despite my efforts to avoid such sentimental recollections, every little link to the past still remains – from the War Memorial on which I stood overlooking Memorial Hill on snowy winter nights, to the sofa in Garman’s common room on which I snuggled up to endure the long nights of reading, and of course to the familiar humid summer breeze brushing over my skin, calling up memories of the exhilaration that seized me back in freshman year. Glancing at the past three and a half years that I frivolously (and also helplessly) wasted away I recalled all the anxiety, fear, and loneliness that once engulfed me, some of it gone, some of it now grown to be part of me; I remembered the clues I have forever lost; the promises I failed to keep; the enthusiastic talks about sports games which I still cannot make sense of; the attachments from which I’m unable to be freed; the people from different countries I haven’t got to learn better and never will; and most of all, the unattainable things which I once yearned for, which I now sadly let go of – for they are beyond my reach just like the perishing leaves in the New England autumn.

As for autumn, which has time after time been acclaimed by residents and visitors of New England alike, it cannot provoke any pure sense of aesthetic enjoyment in me that is not blended with the melancholic sensory experience of transience, the explosion of flaming gorgeous colors that already forebodes decay. Therefore, every year as the season approaches I almost long for its departure. Then here comes the winter, the ever-lasting New England winter. It freezes everything in place so that everything happens in slow motion – people become clumsy, words distant and still, except for the ultra clear crunching sound of snow as I trek from Frost to my room after midnight, resonating occasionally with the penetrating screams of parties in the distance, smacking of an esoteric, prehistoric ritual suspended in time. Winter at Amherst is transformative to me, in both good and bad senses. Sometimes it lasted so long that I thought it was the only season on earth. Yet it was also in winter that the most transcendental experience at Amherst befell me. That was three and a half years ago when my teammates and I were wrapping up a session of badminton at Alumni Gym and were starting to head back home.

It was late at night and everything was covered in deep snow. Despite fatigue from the day’s activities, somehow we started a snowball fight along the way up Memorial Hill and soon everybody was throwing, dodging, slipping, and giggling. As the battlefield slowly moved to the top of the hill, all of a sudden I saw two students standing there, gazing beyond the mountain range, silhouetted against the sky. They told us that a rocket was about to be launched nearby, and they were waiting to see it ascend into the sky in that direction. As absurd as it sounds, I decided to stand there and wait for the rocket launch with them. The cold of winter condensed as the snowflakes began to seep in through my sleeves and collar, melting as soon as they touched my body and streamed down with my sweat. I clenched my teeth tight and saw my heavy breath materialize in white clouds in front of my face. Then I saw the rocket. It was so tiny that I could only see its burning tail gliding through the red night sky. I couldn’t hear anything. I thought, it’s like a fish. A glowing fish that slowly, quietly swam past and vanished from my vision in the deep sea, leaving only a trace of glimmering light as I closed my eyes. My body, my limbs were swamped by tides of hot and cold sensations, rising and falling. How alone is this fish! Along its long, solitary journey to reach what awaits it, does it expect to cross paths with anyone? Is it secretly yearning to be gazed at by someone like us? Is it afraid of burning up and eventually turning into nothing? Or what if it wants to simply reach somewhere in its lifetime, as both a means and an end? I attempted to verbalize something but that transcended the boundary of my language. I guess all I can conclude is that it’s destined to reach somewhere unalterable and from then on repeat its cycle, just like the permanent shifting of seasons, the coming and fading of foliage and snow, whereupon we sustain our fragile connections with each other and with everything else.

“When a creature is so badly constituted (perhaps in nature that being is man) that he cannot love unless he suffers and that he must suffer to learn truth, the life of such a being becomes in the end very exhausting. The happy years are those that are wasted; we must wait for suffering to drive us to work.”

Amherst is the capricious stranger and lover who knocks me off balance for the first time in my life, who tortures me with his overwhelming presence and arrogance, but who then kisses me on the forehead and draws me back with his puzzles and the adventures that return to me in my sleep. In him I feel as empowered as I am enfeebled, like an exhausted poet awake all night, cursed by and lost in her own words that she carefully crafted with frantic affection. This disorientation left me no way to escape but only served to keep my eyes wide open in darkness, the unfathomable darkness that soaks me during this long night.

What am I here for? Who are all those around me? Where shall I go? Why so? One thing I can be sure of is that at the age of 22, I am as poor, ignorant, and confused as when I was 18, still unable to sing well or appreciate symphonies orchestrated in Buckley, still losing socks and my ID card, still not as good at math as the other Asians, and still jealous of the privileges that I have not had, though perhaps with more awareness of all that than ever. But so what? I can still write, run, create, and occasionally laugh at myself. I am learning to embrace all these and telling myself that it’s okay to be alone, to be imperfect, to fail and to try over and over, or to give up and not to be ashamed, because this too shall pass.

If it be the only thing I can and will ever possess on Earth, the courage to fend off the banal, vain, and elitist life bestowed upon me by the presence of Amherst and to confront the core of existence in its most simplistic form, that day I shall finally be ready to depart Amherst, knowing that I, too, am capable of leaving behind what never has been and going forth to explore what has been calling me since the beginning of the time.