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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

Homecoming by CJ Q. '23

some musings on memory

You learn how to navigate MIT. It’s inevitable. After you stay here for a couple days, the bulletin boards begin to look familiar. You’ll start knowing where things are. There are only so many intersections in MIT for you to explore. You’ll eventually know where each path will go, even if you don’t actually take it, because you can guess. You’ll get a mental map of what MIT looks like. It won’t be perfectly right, but it’ll be right enough that you’ll never be truly surprised where a hallway leads you.

One. Don’t look: what’s the color of the floor in the room you’re in?

Coming back to Valenzuela, my hometown, feels especially painful, because my head is imposing this map that the territory does not follow. This doesn’t happen just because the place has changed, with taller buildings and more trees, rebranded restaurants and abandoned stores. The nature of memory is that each time you recall something the image corrupts a little, so even if the place was exactly the same, it’d still be a mismatch from what you remember.

Every time I’ve come back to my hometown I feel my stomach twist. My gut doesn’t want me back. Doesn’t want me to look. The street I walked with my friends to get home every day after school? With that sari-sari store selling overpriced school supplies and the street vendors selling bananacue? That street lives rent-free in my head. I don’t want to know what it looks like now.

Two. Two nights ago I was walking in the basement below the Infinite Corridor and I briefly could not find my way from East Campus to Building 7. This was a path that used to be natural enough I could browse Twitter while walking through without stopping to look around. Now the memories of these hallways have loosened their grip on my leg muscles, enough that my mental map of what MIT looks like isn’t quite right any more.

No, it wasn’t like visiting MIT for the first time. Please, I’ve never left MIT, not since I came here freshman fall! The feeling of being surrounded with everything new can only truly happen once, and I have squeezed out every single drop of the wonders of campus. But it’s probably the closest I’ll ever (for)get, until I graduate.

This fall, MIT will welcome four years of undergraduates, half of which have seen what the campus looks like in full bloom, and the rest of which have not seen that in a year and a half. The torch of institutional memory has been broken, and it’s up to us to piece it together from the imperfect fragments of our nostalgia.

Three. MIT is not a place. It’s never been a place.

If you’ve been reading the blogs for a while, you’ve probably picked up that a big part of what people love about MIT is the people. It’s about the people, it’s about the people, it’s about the people. No better time for this to manifest than now, when the place has been taken away from us, and the only thing left is each other.

But the place helps. The place really, really helps. It’s not quite MIT until I can walk out to the lounge at one in the morning and see people working. It’s not MIT until I can crash my friends’ rooms. Over the past year, I’ve learned to appreciate how much of the Institute is its people, but I’ve also learned how much the place shapes its people.

Four. I used to play tennis, and I never liked it. My parents kind of forced me to play, along with all of my siblings. I was constantly berated and compared with my younger sister, who’s stellar at the game.

Probably the biggest reason is because there’s so many things to remember when you’re hitting the ball. Bend your knees, grip the racket correctly, make contact with the ball at the right angle, make sure it hits the right spot. Swing your arm back the right distance and make contact right before it passes you. Follow through. Follow the ball with your eyes, but you should also be looking at the net and the court and your opponent. Not to mention that the way you hit the ball differs when you’re near the net and when you’re further from it, and you need to remember to switch when you’re moving between. There’s so many variables that goes into making a shot good, that despite however many times I’ve tried to burn it in my muscle memory, I’ll still mess up one part or another.

But it’s not really tennis, itself, that I hate; more of my parents’ attitude about it. It didn’t matter that I disliked the game, I was still forced to come to training every week, I’d get dragged to watching matches I wasn’t interested in, and I’d get stern talks when I’d play badly.

This quarter I am taking golf as a PE class, and many of the mechanics remind me of tennis. The way you grip the club and angle it to hit the ball in the right position, how you’d have to keep your eyes on it and make sure you actually hit it, how you have to bend your knees and look down and swing back the right amount and follow through.

The resemblance to tennis sickens me, despite having little problem when I actually play golf. I chose to enroll in this class! I like golf! But my stomach still twists when I walk from my room to Briggs Field on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and I have to push myself to attend class rather than skipping. Memories and associations are fickle things.

Five. I’m taking 21W.755 Reading and Writing Short Stories this semester, which, by the way, is an awesome class. Professor Lewitt said, about my first story, that the way I write scenes is like an impressionist painting. The vivid parts were colorful and vivid, but the rest of the story felt pale in comparison.

This is a reflection of how my memory works, and probably yours too. There are a handful of events I remember really well, and the rest are just vague marks in the sand. Time froze on March 2020, MIT’s campus was deserted, and my memories since then have become a desert too. All of my memories before March 2020 feel like an oasis: refreshing, distant, but probably just something I’m making up to make myself feel better.

Six. The other day I was walking back from golf class into Kresge Lawn. I sat down on the bench and started scrolling through my phone. Then I realized that the weather was just too nice, so I took off my jacket and walked on the lawn and lied down on the grass, staring up at the sun, directly overhead.

I have a memory of lying down in Kresge Lawn last summer at eight in the evening with some friends from Princeton who were in town. We were staring up and complaining about the lack of stars and talking about math and fall policies and the future. And it felt great, hanging out with someone, when I spent most of that summer alone in my room. It was a good night, and I wished I had spent more time with them.

That day I was lying alone, but I felt at ease. Maybe it was the sunlight or the soft breeze or the murmur of Spanish conversation or the dew making my pants damp or the way that I’d see blue behind my closed eyelids. Maybe it was because of the memory, its shape still fitting snugly into my image of Kresge Lawn now. Or maybe it was just getting to lie down without worrying about anything for a few minutes.

Seven. Behold, I’m coming home. I’m coming home! Eventually, I will crawl out of my room, I will push against my stomach twisting, and I will form enough new memories that these hallways will no longer be painful to walk through.