For some reason this year, exam season has not come with the same stress as it usually does. An external observer might say, “Oh, well that’s just because you’ve decided you aren’t pre-med,” as if the relationship between exams and grades might be my primary stressor. They might tell me, “It’s because you’re thinking of switching out of the hard sciences (neuroscience)” as if the “hard” of “hard sciences” was synonymous with “difficult.” Someone might hypothesize that it’s the relief of realizing “what I want.” But it’s more complicated than that.
I’ve been thinking back to this summer, when I climbed Xiang Shan mountain in Beijing. It’s something my family does every time we go back, because it is close to my grandmother’s grave, and we always pay our respects. Her grave is also on a mountainside, because it is good feng shui to put cemeteries near water and mountains. And we saw these piles of empty headstones, leaning against each other like unwritten books at some grotesque library. I was happy then, so I didn’t imagine my own life condensed into a few carved letters, weathered by time and covered with pine needles, one stone sentry standing stoically erect among thousands.
After the choking sadness of sweeping her grave, and carefully going over the letters on her headstone with gold paint, the physical exertion of climbing Xiang Shan was a relief. At some points the mountain path is frighteningly steep, and you can see Beijing spread out beneath you like a map or a smoky painting. There are signs as you go, politely reminding you to stay hydrated and watch your step. One advised, “If you are enjoying the view, please do not climb the mountain. If you are climbing the mountain, please do not look around. Doing one at a time will prevent injury.” And I thought, what a beautiful metaphor for life.
Charging through life this way—running headlong into more and more advanced courses, preparatory classes, career fairs, mock interviews, resume building—I have been like a horse with blinders. When your peripheral vision has been covered up, of course you can only think of going straight, or being pulled in whatever direction your rider fancies. When you can’t see the side paths that branch off here and there, when you feel like you have no options but walking in the same direction forever, of course your natural inclination is to want to stop, to admit your exhaustion to yourself and collapse in a worn and panting heap. You are too caught up in this mad race to the top to realize all the other places you could be going, you are too busy staring at that unlikely pinnacle to appreciate how far you’ve come, how beautiful that tree is, how surprising that stream.
I turned 20 in November, but sometimes, when I am not feeling like a mayfly, I feel as if I have already lived forever. Each new step I take could be the end of my journey, and maybe that would be okay, or maybe I would fight it as hard as I could. That beautiful stanza by Robert Frost echoes through me like a mantra, a prayer accompanied by the rhythmic clacking of holy beads: “These woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”
Danica Liu is a Trinity sophomore.