The Only Thing To Fear

         Over the years, I’ve discovered that I’m afraid of many things. When I was young, it was the instinctive fear of the dark. All the associated phobias of monsters or killers in the night were still unformed. That came later, after watching too many Chinese television soaps. Instead, fear began undefined and nebulous. The dark was its own being that could reach out and grab me right out of my bed. Then, I was afraid of my parents. Their disappointment was always palpable when I did something wrong. These fears pursued me in the daylight at school and the darkness of my room became my shelter instead. They also became more concrete. They were the grades on my report card, the group of girls that always shared a table, and the feeling in my stomach right before a test. They multiplied by the day and I began to yearn for the day where all I ran from was the boogie man.

Fear is a gift. Without fear, a sabretooth tiger would have torn apart the last of the human species an ice age ago. We learn from what we dread the most. In fact, many of our fears are manifestations of previous wounds. Perhaps it was a bee sting or a scraped knee. Perhaps it was a particularly awkward third-grade presentation that creates a life-long aversion to public speaking. There is always something that prevents us from achieving our full potential. Even when the entire affair is forgotten, that twinge of pain casts a shadow upon our aspirations. Other fears are instilled by society. By the time high school began, I had even learned to fear my own body. There was too much fat here, not enough there. Suddenly, I started fearing the prospect of walking through life alone. It was the terror of never meeting someone that truly, intimately understood me. And so, I fretted over outfits, over parties, over a thousand little things, because now, there was a new formless fear, love, or more specifically, that I would never, ever, ever, ever find it.

FDR, of course, would come to say that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. What is often forgotten is the extension of that idea. That we should fear that fear keeps us from achieving our true potentials. That we will let fear control us our entire lives and never truly live or be ourselves. This is the fear spawned by the inevitability of death. The last and greatest despair is that we will leave nothing behind and be forgotten without a protest. Perhaps that was what I saw as I considered the dark all those years ago. But I think the worst thing that you can do in the face of fear, is refusing to acknowledge it. Fear is as legitimate and useful as any other feeling. After all, there is no love without fear. You love someone because they alleviate that fear of loneliness, because they can accept you for all your vulnerabilities. It is only when fear overwhelms everything else that it becomes something to be afraid of. Confronting fear is easier said than done. But it also the only path to a truer understanding of self.

It is Always Sunny in Ann Arbor

……Just kidding! But when the sun does burst out from behind the grey clouds, it is not only the sky that seems to get lighter. Even my daily walk to the dining hall was shorter with the sunshine streaming down. Every breath becomes a phenomenon, a spectacular gift from nature. Then there is the increased awareness of motion. Up and down, left and right. I am suddenly aware of the motion of my arms and my legs as I stroll along the sidewalk. How am I doing it? When did I learn this? Half of my hazy memories stem from static ridden home videos alone. My path to South Quad leads me past the Cube and the people populating the square. The children are reveling in action too. Their joy illuminates the complete lack of fear to their movements. Their parents move in a completely different manner, following different rules. They move their cameras up and down as helpless as I to capture the complete transformation that has occurred before our eyes.

 

As a person that has always loved winter, it feels like a betrayal to admit that I love this weather. But as much as I like the coziness of a knit-wool sweater and the warmth in the bottom of my stomach after a cup of hot chocolate, all of that is manufactured as a response to the weather. You can never truly embrace winter without keeping at least two layers in between you and the cold. Everything is open and free under the sun. We expose ourselves in t-shirts and shorts without concern. Our fears evaporate in the clear air and leave us with minds liberated from responsibility. Perhaps that is why I can move in such child-like wonderment today, all those adult burdens have simply vanished.

This is not an altogether original observation. When I proposed this blog post to my roommate, she may have rolled her eyes, and responded with a “duh”. But I think she unintentionally proved my point. This weather unites us, tempting us to all come out of our separate houses and dorm rooms. Sunshine is universal. Even on the coldest day in Ann Arbor, when the wind temporarily robs you of the ability to breathe, it must be sunny somewhere. Then, there is the comfort, that in a few months the sun will return with all its suffocating, summer humidity. Wherever you turn, you cannot escape the influence that the sun exerts. It is a constant reminder of life, fueling the processes that allow everything on Earth to bloom. I glance at a shrub and am reminded of eighth grade biology without the boredom of the classroom. Thousands of little pancake-like granum are hidden in that leaf, unconsciously saving the world by using the power of the sun to fix CO2 from the air. I feel the heat on my skin and think of the expansive, cold space that surrounds this tiny planet. Out of millions of floating rocks, this is the one with the star at the correct distance to create life, rather than burn it out of existence.

The sun has become more than simply the physical fuel for our lives, but also the inspiration of art and mythology. Every day, Apollo traverses the sky in his glowing chariot. Every night, Ra enters the Underworld and fights his eternal battle against Apophis, the god of Chaos. In Aztec legend, Huitzilopochtli is the sun and the moon is his sister’s decapitated head. Again, the sun is universal from one end of the hemisphere to the other. Akycha hails from the Inuit mythology and Inti from Incan legend. It is not just ancient history either. One of the most enduring symbols of America, after all, is the Washington monument, an enormous obelisk. Everything is built to optimize the sunlight, even the new buildings currently being constructed built for the University of Michigan business school. Its influence is omnipresent. You would have to move the Earth out of the orbit of the sun to escape its presence.

It is hilarious to think that the Earth was once considered the center of the solar system when our lives so clearly revolve around the sun. The warmth of the sunshine is always there even when it is not sunny in Ann Arbor.

Starry Nights

http://img01.deviantart.net/470a/i/2004/163/c/2/night_ann_arbor.png

Most days, my classes end as night begins. I walk out to softly, glowing oranges and dusky blues. The dimming environment becomes a comforting blanket after the stresses of the day. It is usually a brief respite though. There are club meetings and the omnipresent threat of work still to be done. But as night advances, your sense of time elongates. I am usually absorbed by the computer screen, its glow lighting up the darkness. It is so easy to lose hours as there is no deadline for a long time yet. The consequences of staying up are also quite far away. By 2:00 in the morning, everything falls silent and still and its only me left typing at my laptop.

The night is intoxicating to me. I drink it in because it is my time. During the day, I am forever a slave to my schedule, shivering from one classroom to the next. Reflection in between is rare. There is always something to be done. So even as my head begins ache dully, I realize that I achieve greater clarity in the silent hours of the night. I can slow down and give voice to my thoughts. I perch on the edge of my seat, floating in a bubble of light. It is loneliness, but not an uncomfortable one. There is no longer any pressure to do anything other than sit and work. But it’s also a false hope. As the hours pass, the urgency of day begins again clashing with my idling brain. I am practically asleep, but I want to cling on to consciousness. Occasionally, my eyes drift toward the darkened window and wonder about the parties, the drinkers, the vivid adventures lived out only when the sun has gone. But I can’t worry about that too much. There is statistics homework to do.

Two hours pass and I’m already imagining the next day. It will drift, my mind obscured by the fog of the night’s non-excursions. I can see it, hear it too loudly. And suddenly, I am. I’m not in my bedroom, I’m sitting in a crowded lecture hall. My bleary eyes search out the rest of the students sitting around me. How many of them are fighting through confusing weariness? Frankly, I’m too tired to care.

The college experience is as much about what happens at night as what occurs during the day, although they are never represented equally. The bright and glossy brochures arrive in the mail, hinting at nothing. There are classes to go to, but the real work happens afterwards. Even clubs usually meet under the cover of darkness. It is what truly differentiates life at the University of Michigan and all the years before. There are no more parents sleeping upstairs or younger siblings in their prying eyes. The only curfew is the sunrise creeping closer as the hours pass. Only fear prevents you from wandering through the quiet streets. The liberty of becoming an adult, coming to college, is only truly realized at night. Sleepless nights. Peaceful nights. Nights lit with the neon glow of a club’s sign. Nights are without boundaries and without routine, without even the obstruction of time. Outside, the glint of the rounded street lamps is omnipresent. Here and there are sparks of blue. Up above, the stars.

The Little Place on the Corner

My earliest memories are of a brightly lit restaurant wall. It is an unnatural red that catches the eye. But what holds my gaze is the golden dragon. For a mythical beast, it is strangely friendly looking with its bushy, comical eyebrows. It swirls to meet up with yet another creature, a phoenix with a feathery tail. Both figures are clearly formed from a plastic mold that has produced thousands like it to be placed in thousands of other Chinese restaurants. These places are so common in the United States. They hide in plain sight, small and insignificant on the street corner or in the middle of a strip mall. They use small, dirty signs as their disguises. So perhaps this restaurant, that still holds a place in my heart, is not that special. But I don’t care. There is something extraordinary in those little spaces.

I grew up sitting at the dim sum table, even before I can recall. Dim sum is a tradition from Hong Kong, traditionally composed of many small appetizer dishes, shared among just as many. It is not the “Chinese” food like Americans would typically experience it. Its bean curd and intestine and strange textures. There is rarely cheese and always rice. Its served in bamboo steamers, wrapped in banana leaves, and even in clay pots. Served with it all, is hot Oolong tea. But is not even the strange products that differentiates Chinese food to me. Unlike the typical conception of what Chinese food is, it is slow. It is not take-out in little white boxes. Rather I remember taking home containers of leftovers, excess from a long meal with my family, a reminder of good times.

The funny thing is that even that doesn’t even begin to summarize what Chinese food has become as it has been translated and moved to a new continent. China is a vast country with the world’s largest population and it has resulted in a variety of food culture. This has only grown as it has traveled to a new locale. Mostly, it has been food that has originated from southern China that has been introduced to Americans. Pan fried noodles and potstickers are both southern products. But the transfer goes both ways. During the British occupation of Hong Kong, many European traditions were translated too. The breakfast café rivals dim sum in popularity, serving baked spaghetti and pounded, pan fried steaks. It doesn’t matter, in the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m eating at a café or at a dim sum restaurant, I end up content and not the tiniest bit hungry.

My favorite part of the meal is the beginning. It is the special type of anticipation waiting for a meal that ends. One that forces you to talk just to stop your imagination from yearning too much for the awaited food. It is a rhythm, talk interspersed here and there with sips of tea. Moments linger longer than they should. My mom smiles from the other side of the table. My sister and dad are talking about the Chinese variety show playing on the TV. The dragon looms over my shoulder as I raise my porcelain cup and drink.

Multiple Choice

I like apples and oranges. They are delicious, colorful, and above all, fruity. One is crunchy and good in pies. The other is juicy and good in popsicles, as well as being considered by many (read: me) as the best candy flavor. I’ll let you guess which is which. I have room to love both in my heart (and stomach), but I still can’t help but compare them. It seems to be a constant refrain in my life. What do I like? And what do I like better? Everything becomes a choice between one thing or another, especially when it comes to how to spend my time. Every minute is precious as I rush from class to class, but I find that can spare more than a few when I curl up to procrastinate on my homework. My economics professor would call this concept, opportunity cost. Every time we choose, we are giving up the value of the next best alternative. Unfortunately, this mindset only sends me down a wormhole of absolute despair. Every situation becomes a loss. Every situation becomes a terrifying game of “what if….”. All this flashes through my head, as I stand in front of the baskets of fruit in the dining hall. The hustle and bustle of my fellow students mock my unmoving indecisiveness as I switch my gaze from apple to orange and back. I sense the impatience building up behind me, and grab a banana instead.

After several unsatisfying bites of banana, I am at another crossroads. Now, I want to go back and grab another fruit. The unknown is the most terrifying effect of choice. Perhaps that is why there has been so many periods of time where people have given up on choice all together. When everything seems bleak, there is an instinct to gift the responsibility and the regret that comes along with it to someone else. Personality driven governments rise because the people believe that a charismatic leader has all the right answers. However, there are times where you cannot shift the blame. President Truman famously had a plaque declaring “The Buck Stops Here” placed on the Resolute Desk. A mere seven months after he took office, he was faced with the most impossible choice of all, whether to drop atomic bombs on Japan. In deciding to go forward with the plan, he set off an unknowable chain of events that would lead to decades of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Perhaps Japan would have surrendered anyway. Perhaps millions of American soldiers and Japanese civilians would have died during the inevitable land invasion. There is no way to know for sure. That ignorance is haunting.

I think that is why I find time travel so fascinating. It is a device that was made for indecisiveness. If only life could be as easy as picking up a remote control and flipping through the options. But there remains a choice. Even if I knew every possible future, I would still need to make a value judgement on which one was the most worthwhile. I think the critical mistake is thinking that a choice as a definition instead of a fluid thing. Life is a result of continues choices. I can’t just let one stop me in my tracks.

A Cup of Tea

tea


The tea blooms before me. Tendrils of color deepen the previously clear water until it reaches a comforting mahogany. Everything about a cup of tea seems to have a softening effect on my being. Even sensation fades as if the steam from the cup has enveloped everything. My eyes, which had been stinging with tiredness from a late night study session, felt rejuvenated for a few moments. All before I took a single sip. In a day with a thousand and one tasks, it was a fleeting event, but somehow, the most memorable. Most of my days flash by minute after minute. I wake up to the jarring screech of my alarm clock and the overcast light creeping its way through the window. I fall asleep when it gets dark. Class, homework, class, sleep. Sometimes to break up the monotony, I sleep during class. I do so much, but seem to get nothing done. So as I stare down at the simple cup of tea, I feel a strange sort of peace that only comes with reflection and a little bit of silence.

Screens

The world has become very noisy. There are a thousand things calling for our attention. Even now, while I’m writing this very blog post, I have four other screens open, not including the Spotify player pumping music through my earbuds. The three other people in the room are plugged into their computers as much as the computers are plugged into their electrical outlet. Even when I walk down the street, I do so in a bubble of artificial sound. I get to hear people from across the country talk about pop culture, politics, and my personal favorite, sports. The effect is distancing. I walk past people without seeing them, I eat food without tasting it, and it is never silent. There is no awkward chit chat or even an acknowledging nod. The earbuds are a signal as glaring as a flashing red light. Don’t approach.

Ironically, filling our worlds with endless noise has become a type of sedative. The constant blare is a distraction from deeper reflection. Doing twenty things at once becomes a parody of usefulness, a way to feel fulfilled but to fulfill nothing. Often, I find myself sitting in a chair for hours on end, clicking, stopping for a moment, clicking again. When I do look away, I am surprised at what I find. It usually includes an endless number of people, with faces I can barely recognize, clicking away. It is usually lonely. But I think it would be the same even without the screens. When all is silent, all you have left is yourself. And all that is left of yourself is a scheduled routine, a set number of tasks to do in a row.

The best type of silence, then, is the one in the morning. It is when the day is still full of endless potential. I still think about all the tasks I need to complete though, all the places I must go at a certain time. But perhaps while I’m walking to those places, I may see something new. Maybe before I finish those tasks, I will stop for a cup of tea.