Natalie Soloperto writes a letter to the Class of 2017.
How does a new branch grow? It starts with a flowering, pale white against deep, flexible brown; soon it will grow into something that may hold beneath a bird, maybe later her nest, and one day beneath a child. How does a new self grow? It starts with a flowering, flushed skin against the pink of another’s lips, and the colors of a thousand of taxi brake lights, all lined up at dusk, the first gray hair you notice a little too young. Soon, maybe, the strength of this self will grow to hold beneath the symphony of success, the pressure of inflamed vocal chords, the impact of failure, the wail of time as it leans into the void of eternity and drags you with it. You flower with joy and die with inevitability; like trees in changing seasons, our bodies are brought to bare beneath the brunt of our chances.
I think, now, that there is so much I would tell you all if one day we met down the line, and this part of our lives was just a distant memory, you know? If we, and this moment, could ever be something that grew in reverse. Perhaps ours was a life, and a friendship of sorts which began with stable tree trunk, and then shrunk into a flowering. What would I give you, then, of this moment, of this time where I am sitting in my kitchen watching smoke rise off of the incense sticks that I burn to feel closer to something?
Perhaps, maybe, I would pass onto you the realization that we are much like this blue, sandalwood smoke. We burn in strong, straight directions until we become rivets, and spirals undulating onto each other, and onto the things that we love, such as our friends, our families, our futures. Maybe I would tell you that things don’t get to always be so straight and narrow, and eventually, like this smoke we break into a dance with the air around us, become light-hearted, age, and eventually, we disperse in death. We exist with the lingering necessity to ask what it is that we’re supposed to do about being consciousnesses that are free forming, billowing, expanding always, and which are also shackled to bodies, and imprisoned within the linearity of time.
Maybe I would also give your skin back the feeling of that first summer spent in Shanghai, return you to the exuberance of our orientation, and the exhaustion that came with it. The heat of that first August pressed blindly down onto the artery in my neck and stung my eyes during every new step I took. Looking back, I do not know if I should assign that discomfort the metaphor of clairvoyance before a journey, or simply the inconvenient effects of taking a chance on myself, moving all the way across the world. Still, I recall that August well, the way the breathtaking heat seemed to emanate from the Pearl Tower as though it was the focal point of the small galaxy of Shanghai. We lived in a different atmosphere — much closer to the clouds, just beneath wisps of our own bated breaths, early evening cigarette smoke, exhaust, and coal.
Then, there was the way that intolerable, yet wonderful, mass fever suddenly, and all at once broke. It did not decline, did not silently pack its bags in the evening and wait for us to fall asleep before slipping out the door. It did not leave a note, but instead gave way to monsoons which drowned our campus and our smaller selves. The summer haze simply shattered and revealed a fall spent eating baozi on the lawn in front of Mao, taking long walks to the front gate for a change, a feeling of being strangely foreign in my own skin.
The self of mine which lived through orientation is the one I draw on most as I have moved forward into the rest of my life. I have been guilty of throwing myself into opportunities, adventures, and new journeys using the phrase: “If at eighteen I moved, alone, to China without a word of Chinese under my belt and survived, then I guess I’ll be able to make it through this, too”. My past, in this way, becomes almost like a dare, pushing me forward where I could respectably find means to turn back. My past, as I’m sure yours does, acts like the wind in the sails of a ship I do not yet know how to navigate; nevertheless, I stumble upon distant shores regularly, and feel proud to know they have given my experience the depth, truth, and urgency of a life which is content not to be lived twice.
At eighteen years old I, and my fellow classmates, were all brave enough to take two feet off of the ground and jump head first into a world which would melt us like the magmatic convection beneath such tectonic shifts. We rearranged our futures with the breadth of our decision to forsake security, the gentle life, the normal path, all in search of the pleasures of transgression, of subversion, of the confidence to believe in ourselves, and our aspirations. We believed in this inveterate experiment, the project of humanity. Both in my past, and in my classmates, I now find the bravery to continue doing the things which scare me — to move forward at all costs, to invest myself and my love, often in spite of disastrous trial and error.
I learned more in those transformative two years, which I spent a part of the NYU Shanghai Class of 2017, than I did in the seventeen years which preceded them. These lessons, which were not always easy to translate, came in the language of regrettable first kisses, whispers on a stoop in the early morning, the gossip of street food vendors, the first gasp you exhale when you learned the sharks at M1NT have to be replaced weekly (RIP), and the laughter of our wild, feral, freshman year friendships. The lessons came in waves of grief which pulled me out to sea, through tears in the bathroom at Ellen’s, through hugs in Sophia’s dorm room, sold by Chase’s sick sense of humor. Madeline taught me organizational skills as we drank coffee at five the morning (I don’t think I would be graduating without you); Olivia Taylor taught me the value of a woman’s work ethic and how persistence can often look like exhaustion, and Rima taught me how to be kind, often relentlessly so. Mate taught me how grief can be fertile soil in which to grow a beautiful friendship. Sophia taught me the value of forgiveness, how homes can be made in other people more surely than on land; Sam showed me how to be a woman, how beauty is something which leaks out of you. Anna and Hannah gave me the value of American food, tastes of home hidden under the bed, and walks around ECNU’s campus, true bellowing laughter. Everyone taught me something, really, about the making of a community. I learned how one is built up when people who don’t necessarily love each other act with love towards each other, and for each other, when we all take responsibility for one another and invest in each other’s success and happiness. From this place I learned the value of civil society, of democracy which, through small daily interactions, calmly places each of our hands on the moral arc of the universe and bends it towards justice a little more each day.
This community is one that I have felt regardless of my location, when Luke Noel popped a beer open on my kitchen counter in the Lower East Side, and talked about how afraid he was to meet his nephew for the first time. I felt it in group chats, and when Sophia dropped her life to comfort me the first, second, fifth, and twelfth time. I know it exists whenever I recreate freshman year sleepovers in Sam’s bed. I feel this community, and know its value in this world, our world, which makes the anxiety of being in flux seem like a ‘lifestyle choice’. I feel safe between friendships, fettering away late nights gossiping with Betsie, and Emma, and Jantima about the boys who come and go, and who remind me that I am always moving forward, away from my past. I feel accomplished when I watch Alex Mayes, and Kevin Akinfolarin, and Mark begin their journeys out into the world. I hope Roxanne rubs off on me, and I know I’ll be hiring Naomi on commission to paint murals in my first home. I am proud of you all. As a class, we’ve witnessed the miracles of birth, and of motherhood, grieved deaths both communal and personal. We’ve been mesmerized by pyro-acrobatics, 3D printed our IMA students to fame, and walked the corners of this Earth confident in the soles of our feet, the souls of our companions, and when all else failed, the spirits on the local bodega shelves.
In a world where KTV stands as a renaissance portrait of my best years, cigarette smoke makes me reluctantly inhale with nostalgia, and my name sits somewhere on the walls and tables at Perry’s, I know that looking forward will always be mixed with looking back and drawing inspiration from our past. I am so proud to have shared such a journey, and so thankful that you still allow me to claim some small part of this story that is NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class. Moreover, I am thrilled to have spent two small years also in New York City, with wonderful Professors, friends, and been a home to some of you on your journey through. Now, my weathered self constantly looks towards the horizon for an inspiring moment to grow a new branch, yet, handles with care the stories of my own clumsy mistakes and mismanagement as they are proof of all the moments in which people took chances on me. From my, then startling, acceptance to NYU, to my advisor, to my professors, to my friends, thank you for taking chances on me. Thank you Mom, and Dad, for nurturing my instinct to make a home in insanity, on the edge of the long road. I am thankful for the blessings I have been bestowed, for the miracle of my congress with you all, and of course, for the kinks in our communion. You have all made so wonderful this world, through which I am briefly passing.
I guess, now, as I reach the end, if I had one more thing to leave you all with it would be this, the most important thing I have learned in my life:
We, humanity, our existences, are all made real and meaningful by our position on the edge of possibility, of failure, of death. The natural human position is standing before the past which one felt comfortable with, all the while looking forward to the inevitable seismic shifts that the future will bring — the onerous challenges which we must face, but did not ask for. At the end of it all, I firmly believe that the measure of your success, of our collective success, will be determined in the times we rose, regardless of triumph, regardless of self-interest and advantage, to the call of the future. No matter which way your new self grows, it will grow strong, and capable, and flower, and it will one day, too, by the grace of God, be cut down.
We will always be perched on the edge of despotism, of oppression, of extinction, and because of this the human experiment is meant to test one’s resilience, and perseverance, and patience. You will always be half a step from exhaustion, and from giving up. You won’t ever have it figured the whole way out. So, you are supposed to be afraid, and unsure of yourself, to make a life of guesswork. Yet, you will never be so un-found that you cannot take joy in the pleasures of being lost.
This life, every life, our lives together are all testimonies of new branches, which grow seemingly from the cold work of winter, and of grief, of fear, and which make more beautiful the arc of the horizon that greets our future from its due position just beyond our reach. And, though I may very well reach that startling crack in the edge of our known world, where the distance we can never cover will swallow the places we shall always chase, should you make it there before I do, I hope you find that it treats you well. Until then:
You are right where you’re supposed to be. Congratulations, and thank you Class of 2017!
May the horizon treat you well.
This article was written by Natalie Soloperto R. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Xinhuanet