Discontent

I returned back to my mom’s house on May 25th, the day after Graduation. I had known since late April that I had received a Fulbright grant to teach English in a university in Sri Lanka beginning in November 2014, and so I had six months without any definitive commitments. I was just coming off of my fourth and final collegiate tennis season, which was in many ways a capstone on my athletic experience at Bowdoin and the culmination of many years of ardent dedication to competitive tennis. Throughout the season, I had struggled to keep focused on the present and “leave everything on the court,” while preparing for the inevitable next steps in my life. Given the immense allocation of my energy toward tennis, I tentatively decided that I would use this interim period of time before my Fulbright grant started to compete in low-level professional and prize money tennis tournaments. There were three Futures tournaments in the greater New York area in the month of June that I had my eyes on, and I was planning to use my mom’s house in New York as a home base for my training.

But when I came home, I experienced the feeling of retreating into a realm of stagnancy and co-dependence that was unfulfilling after my literal and figurative launch into adulthood. I remember muttering on my first day back that, “I can’t ****ing be here.” In addition, my motivation to train for competitive tennis had clearly waned. As I connected with local players and attempted to simulate a regimen that would prepare me for these professional tournaments, I realized that tennis itself as an individualized athletic pursuit was not what I’d been so viscerally passionate about for so many years. It felt empty. Rather, college tennis had been a platform through which I could confront immense physical, emotional, and psychological challenges with a group of guys I absolutely loved, and work together for something greater than myself and my own narrow aspirations. As I separated the sport of tennis from the experience of interconnectivity with my team and a common purpose with others, it became clear that the tremendous passion I had channeled toward my college tennis team reflected a more latent “why” motivation inextricably bound to the experience of interconnectivity, sacrifice, and purpose. Coupled with the reality that I could not get into any of those three New York area tournaments, I decided to hang up the racquet with my team and channel my energy elsewhere.

More existentially, I came to question my conception of “home” in and of itself. I had returned “home” to my mom’s house–the place where I had spent the better part of my adolescence–and yet I felt out of place and struggled to manifest the growth I’d undergone during my years at Bowdoin. I retreated into familiar habits within a realm of comfort, and psychologically tried to reconcile that launching point on Graduation Day with what appeared to be a withdrawal into a static appropriation of years past. This was not home anymore. I came to introspect – where had I experienced “home” before? In the bustling neighborhood cul-de-sac of my childhood home.  On the Armonk Indoor tennis courts with my Altheus Tennis Program training group. In my Peruvian host family’s mountainous abode in the shadow of Incan ruins. On the Bowdoin quad in the middle of the night after finishing a long paper. In my Sri Lankan host family’s home in the midst of the Kandyan jungle. In a candid conversation with good friends.

I realized that for me, “home” is not so much a static physical place but a dynamic interplay of space, the presence of people I love and value, and a worthy purpose invigorating my actions at a particular time in my life. As I develop and grow, I recognized that my conception of “home” will inevitable change along with me, and I knew that at this transitional time, I needed to fight for a redefined experience of “home” in order to experience contentment and fulfillment in my life. As a quote a friend would later share to me reads, “Growth is painful, Change is painful, But nothing is as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don’t belong.”

I was stuck, but willing to confront some of the “pain” of the “Real World” in order to find home.

Graduation

It was May 22, 2014. Two days before I would leave a place that had shaped my identity and the course of my life in ways I can only begin to understand. I had always grappled with the idea of the “Bowdoin Bubble” — that my collegiate community was distinctly an “island unto itself” to quote a phrase from the Buddhist Dhammapada–a bastion of critical inquiry, thought, and introspection both spatially and temporally divorced from the real challenges and necessities of adult life.  As I braced myself for the transition away from Bowdoin over the course of senior year, I couldn’t help but contend with an attitude of “well that was fun/thought-provoking/beautiful but it’s time to snap out of it and get real.” I still think there is some truth and responsibility to be gleaned from this understanding, but on this sunny day in Maine, it became ever more clear to me that the depth of human experience I had lived in the confines of this campus was too raw to dismiss as youthful frivolity, too analyzed and researched and substantiated to count as a mere abstract game of ideas, and too real to simply relegate to the rear view mirror and move on.

When I first got to know Dan Lesser in the context of my Mahayana Buddhism class junior year, it was very clear that he had an intellectual curiosity and reflective nature that resonated with me , and sure enough, he became a close friend throughout my time at Bowdoin.  As we anticipated the imminent arrival of graduation day, and grappled to find closure amid the controlled debauchery that largely constitutes Senior Week, we both felt a need to bring people together to reflect on what we had experienced both individually and collectively during our time at Bowdoin.

On the evening of May 22, a group of seniors converged on the “Thorndike Oak” on the Bowdoin quad, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, was a notable gathering place of students of years past (as our classmate Sam Burnim would illuminate in his Baccalaureate address). We modeled the ceremony on a Quaker meeting, where those compelled to speak or play or sing or recite could do so amid a backdrop of silence. As I sat in this circle of reflectivity, the beauty, authenticity, and indelible nature of my own Bowdoin experience was reaffirmed and very evidently shared in the expressions of others, as well as in a vulnerable anecdote I decided to relate. Powerful stories and poems and songs were met with laughter and nostalgia and tears in a way that encapsulated the range of human experience contained here, testifying to the power of this space and time. It was fitting that without prior planning we ended the ceremony by joining together to sing “Let it Be.” And so we did.

The following day was May 23rd, and my family was beginning to arrive in Brunswick for the graduation festivities. It was an ominously cloudy day with a forecast of rain, reflecting the uneasy anticipation with which fellow classmates awaited the day to come. The day was a bit of a whirlwind attending departmental events and ceremonies while balancing my desire for low-key time with good friends and the arrival of my family. But perhaps the most memorable part of the day began when I met my grandfather at the Amtrak train station. We walked uphill together from Maine Street and entered the northern end of campus through a subtle yet ornamentally beautiful gateway. As we walked along the perimeter of the campus quad, I experienced a deep sense of pride in this place, and my grandfather’s presence here lent affirmation to how my Bowdoin experience  constituted an indispensable chapter in my personal and familial history. And more broadly, this was a portal into an adult world in which I could relate to my grandfather and the rest of my family in a whole new way.

As I attempt to describe my experience on May 24th, I cannot help but recall a passage from the Tao Te Ching about the impossibility of truly encapsulating the essence of an experience through language or conceptualization:

“Words spoken about the Way have no taste. When looked at, there’s not enough to see. When listened to, there’s not enough to hear. When used, it is never exhausted” (Chapter 35).

My heightened awareness of the literal and figurative transition on Graduation Day elevated the experience to one in which I lost consciousness of space and time, submitting to a ritualized alternate reality marking the ultimate liminality in which I resided. Things simply flowed.

At some point Time reentered the fore and the ceremony came to an end. People quite literally dispersed. I walked around the quad eager for one final embrace with good friends, but amid all the bustle and agenda and partial goodbyes, it was clear that I had entered a new chapter of my life. This was what they call the “Real World,” and it remained to be seen how I would fare.

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