The other night I was wandering around the Internet as a nocturnal ritual of summer when I chanced upon an advice column on travelling. One of the things the author has learned while globe-trotting on an intense schedule is to find constants—objects and habits that are ever-present despite flabbergasting changes in geographic location, living rhythm and outdoor scenery. Upon evocation of the quite eloquent and serious article, I tried hard to think up my personal constants. As an international student, I know first-hand the chilling excitement of building a lifestyle completely isolated of elements one grew up being so accustomed to; the frustration of not quite getting the knack of a constantly shifting breathing beast of life; and the occasional, withering assignation that one just never fits in. After a year, I feel like I have known a little better, or at least I have found sanity against the overwhelming seize of being “international,” an established foreigner almost.
Much as I’m not trying to affirm the one-way logic that there is only an access path to feeling good in adversity, I actually did form some habits throughout my freshman year. I started disciplined journaling and after-9PM long strolls across the quadrangle. The reason why each habit developed out of a seemingly endless list of potentials is both incidental and deliberate.
In winter I was enrolled in a poetry class whose quarter-long assignment is the birth and nurture of an artistic journal, meaning we were to fill it with uncanny imageries that teased at our brains from time to time, poetic spurts that might factor in official reproduction of a poem, lists, doodlings, recounts of dreams etc. The fact that after a week-long increment my journal had to grow by at least three pages forced me to be more attentive, sit down and record my ordinary fleeting thoughts. I became less lazy about the task of yielding a pen on paper, sometimes just to archive the least tangent ideas that are soon buried deep under the exponential bundle of problems we must work our brain muscles around. I keep journaling to this date with self-regulated pressure that my writings make sense, or house creative sparks, or be mature enough. My journaling after the class ended alternates between earnest think exercises and being outraged at myself for acting foolishly around a crush.
In a way, journaling is how I cope amidst a life both new and hectic. So is walking at night. I walk because I sometimes fall host to heavy distressing thoughts that are concocted out of fear, doubt, and embarrassment rather than honest understanding of how everything operates—most of the time I think we tread on the in-between waters, since the latter is untouchable as much as it is precious. It feels astonishingly good to be in a situation where no artificial edifice confines me. It is so astonishing because in the past so many times suffocation had breached walls to yank me out of my peaceful state, and yet I chose to mingle under the excruciating pressure until it was tamed, which never happened, instead of immediately vying for an escape.
I think the important part about establishing “constants” to fight homesickness is that one takes the trouble to do something other than sheperding negativity. It is a regime of self-care in that one is driven on the initiative to ground a vague, though not necessarily inane, desire to feel better in identifiable habits, actions, and objects. I find such resolution brave and admirable.
Sometimes I wonder how exactly those constants helped me feel less scared and lonely during the transition process. At one point along the way, it dawned on me that Hyde Park was a home. It still sounded clumsy when a friend told me they were heading home after class, with “home” being their dorm room. But Hyde Park—my dorm room, my residence hall, the main quadrangle—could be home. They were anything but incapacitated to be home as I slowly developed appreciation, an immaculate awe to its vibrating, communing pulse of life which I was always in presence with but did not internalize.
I see establishing and maintaining static elements in my life as a practice of appreciation. I guess there is a reassuring psychological effect when invoked at the back of my mind is something that does not deny my expectation—it was specifically created or settled to offer a sense of comfort and relief whereas several fixations become shaken up or broken down. Besides assuaging fear and panic, it makes me feel grateful that despite the whirlwind, certain aspects in my life remain unthreatened. There is a basis for appreciation and for moving on, cognizant that I am never fully bereft of power or chance to experience good things, maybe happiness.
Here’s a rather corny anecdote. As I began my frequent nightly saunters, I looked up at the sky more. The moon was spattered in delicate stripes of cloud. The stars were even more breathtaking—I took immense delight just imagining the sort of cosmic force that underpins their exuberance. I once gleefully mentioned to a friend that the number of stars was increasing as the quarter got submerged. The reply I received struck me in both denial and awe, I’m sure there is the same amount number of stars on any single spring night.
Putting astronomical ratification aside, said reply seemed to belittle my enjoyment and reject my earnest desire to spread the ginormous tingling sense of childish wonder I was carrying within and alone. But I was not angered. Maybe that person is right. I wasn’t looking closely enough or at a vantage point to observe the exact number. I could not know.
The point is that the campus now looks no different from, maybe even worse than, how it looked when I first arrived as a doe-eyed freshman. But after a while I noticed the hidden beauties and grew deeply fond of them. I love the smell of rain, which does not occur very often throughout the school year. I love cement pavements and maybe even construction sites, for they represent something underrated as it is universal, the wear of time as well as onward movement of humans in the capsule of time. I had a living rhythm that I dearly missed when I came back home for the summer.
Maybe having constants is a subterranean way to keep your appreciation—your sensitivity to appreciate—alive. And maybe when you have committed yourself to a place long enough, you naturally grow to love it. But to walk the journey that long, to save yourself from complete devourings of doubt and fear, you are strong enough to make the safety net you need.