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up, down, and out by Alan Z. '23

some moments from the last month

up.

In the past month, there have been moments when hope and joy have surprised me; where, despite the odds, my heart is full to bursting, bringing a certain buoyancy into my steps which match my momentary lightness of soul. These feelings usually sneak up on me—I never know when exactly to expect them, but when they do occur, they do feel motivated. Of course I’m over the moon right now, this good thing just happened. But it is odd to feel so good in the midst of finals, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of everything which is horrible in the world, and it is odd that the overwhelming sense of joy only comes in some good moments, after some good things. Or, at least, it always seems exceptional to me after the fact.

In the moment, though, I try to keep that analysis in the background and cherish the feeling.

one.

I recently bought a Bluebikes subscription01 Bluebikes are a service where you can check out bikes for a set period of time. there are stations all over the Boston area, so you can bike for essentially wherever you want; the membership is subsidized by MIT, and provides unlimited 45-minute rides. through MIT and a bike helmet,02 wear your helmet kids so on the day of my second vaccine shot, I walk across the parking lot to the nearest station, check out a bike, and make my way through the streets of Boston to Hynes Convention Center.

The vaccine clinic at Hynes is one of the most efficient operations I have ever seen; you walk in, they look at your ID, they send you into the first room, you sit down at a station, they stab your arm, they update your vaccine card, and they send you into the observation room, all in the span of about two minutes.03 for the first shot, they didn't even give me a Band-Aid. i told my mother this and she called me 'weak' (娇气) As I’m sitting in the observation area, I pull out a notebook and begin writing. I know the second shot doesn’t grant instant immunity, and I know the path to recovery remains riddled with uncertainties, large and small, but I feel so utterly hopeful. I write:

Fittingly enough, today I am getting my second dose of vaccine—I am sitting in a large open hall: concrete floors, signage everywhere. A man is asking “15 or 30 minutes?” for observation and scheduling second doses. My bag and my bike helmet sit on the ground. I feel hopeful again—relieved that the national nightmare is finally over, or, almost, at least. It is the end of the semester as well, and the weight of the world slowly shifts off my shoulders. It gets better—it really does.

Despite my total lack of artistic talent, I draw a little picture of the location marker for my portion of the observation area next to my writing, and I smile.

notebook with drawing

my handwriting is also bad

two.

Later that day, after I’ve gotten back to campus and dropped some stuff off at Next House, I head to Killian Court to join a recording for a music video, in preparation for MIT’s Commencement ceremonies. We gather on the steps, and the conductor gives us some instructions: there are two cameras, one on a drone, one carried by a technician, and we are not to look into them. We also don’t have to sing well—this recording session is for the video, so we just have to follow his cues and sing along to the pre-recorded audio. Someone turns on the click track, and we begin singing, a little hesitant, still somewhat unfamiliar with the piece’s syncopated rhythms.

None of the audio of us at that moment will be used for Commencement proper. But as we record one take after another, getting all the footage that will be used as part of the final video, I pour my heart into the lyrics and the singing. It is the first time in over a year that I have been able to sing with people, in person, where we can hear each other and respond to each other’s voices; the first time in over a year where I’ve been able to make eye contact with a conductor and follow his cues, instead of relying on the slightly faulty metronome in my mind.

It takes us over two hours to get all the footage we want, moving slowly from the steps in front of the Great Dome over to the steps in front of Lobby 7. We face the sunset as we sing, and some of the passers-by stop to watch us. To be performing again, to be whole, to harmonize with the folks around me, it fills me with a simple hope that flows out of every container I possess. The lyrics04 the full lyrics to the song can be found in the description of the video, which is unfortunately un-captioned. reflect my mood: Look at the sky, and remember, that it’s good to be alive.

As I walk back to Next, ready to return to my final assignments, I continue to sing the last refrain to myself: we are fragile, we are precious, we are fragile.

three.

I submit my last assignment on Sunday, three days after the last assignment is allowed to be due, according to the MIT Rules and Regulations of the Faculty. After a few hours of sleep, I wake the next day, I have a small picnic with some friends on the Kresge Lawn, and I spend some time lounging around campus, just happy to be done with the semester at last.

In the afternoon, I ask around to see if anybody is interested in going for a walk. Catherine M. ’23 takes me up on my offer, and we cross into Boston on the Longfellow Bridge. We follow the street down towards downtown Boston, and then turn towards the east, heading straight for the ocean.

picture of fancy building with billowing banner
picture of boston skyline against the sun and with a bridge in front

As we walk along the harbor, the clouds slowly subside, and I feel the hope bubble in me once more. In the midst of that joy, the world just seems so beautiful, so I take many pictures of as it as I can. I spin around, I run my mouth, and I am just intolerably exuberant, to a point where I am sure that Catherine must be annoyed. We wander to Seaport, grabbing dinner with another friend who joins us near Courthouse station. As we eat our ramen on the steps of the Institute of Contemporary Art, looking out at the water, my joyful feelings remain unadulterated, and I float there, happy for once to be caught in the moment.

picture of green space in front of water and boston skyline at sunset
picture of a marina in front of fancy glass buildings

There is so much beauty in the world when my eyes are full of light. The moments when life is up are strange, almost inexplicable, and they are often rare when the world is full of darkness, and the semester is full of work. I try and relish them, knowing that this will pass, but that its loss is hardly a disaster.

down.

In the past month, there have also been moments when the darkness is hard to see past. The last few grinding assignments and final projects, all crammed into the last few days of the semester, seemed particularly grueling this semester, even though I was taking fewer classes. As the work got heavier, I also zoned out more and more, making it hard to learn the content I was supposed to be retaining for my finals. I completed my last assignment, the one that finally released me to the joyous day on the Harborwalk, at 2 AM, after hours of frantic writing through a headache and the exhaustion of seeing everyone around me already done with their classes.

By far the hardest thing, though, has been watching other folks move out. I am still haunted by vivid memories of the exodus, formed under a heavy current of emotions, and I see their shadows in every corner. The airport bus reminds me of my last day on campus, in March of 2020, when I wandered to the shuttle with my violin, suitcase, and backpack, not quite ready to go home. Walking down the empty hallway in 4W reminds that I am once again the last person in the Shire: I am forced to recall packing up the main lounge on my own, trying to fit all of our wing’s plushies into two boxes; I am forced to recall singing “Hallelujah” as I walked down to the water fountain, briefly harmonizing with someone from 4E, before we headed back to our respective spaces to deal with the end of the world.

I went running on the Tuesday after everyone moved out. When I run, I usually go along the path that lies just across the road; although the path is part of a 17-mile-long greenspace next to the Charles, I double back before crossing the road, so the whole distance is maybe 0.75 miles.05 1.2 km I pass back and forth along the river, and, that night, as I passed Next, I looked up at the windows. Only a few lights remained on, those of the Graduate Resident Advisors, and those of the few remaining students who had applied for summer housing. I realized as I continued to run that for every room with a light on, I knew exactly who was there. In that moment, I felt that my conception of Next finally contracted, collapsing from a community to a few lonely souls haunting a space filled with memories too large to contain any of us.

Maybe moveout always hurts. I know I’ve moved out from summer camps and felt a similar kind of yearning and loneliness, if to a different extent. But I can’t help but feel that the exodus has changed the nature of the pain, that every moveout from here on out will feel connected to one that hurt the most. There will never be a normal moveout again, at least, not for us.

Maybe it’s good that the only thing that echoes this sense of loss for me comes from the exodus, that this is the only Real and Significant trauma that has passed in my life. It still hurts though, a sort of dull, aching pain that sits in the background, resurfacing when something calls to it. This, too, I suppose, will pass.

out.

I moved out of Next recently. It took me three trips to move all of my belongings from Next to MacGregor, and after each trip, my room in Next looked emptier and emptier.

But moving out somewhere also means moving in somewhere else.

On the last trip, my old room looked like it was completely empty, and I felt a little sad about all the space I was leaving behind. As I arrived in MacGregor, I considered—briefly—keeping as many things packed as possible over the summer, so that moving back to Next in the fall would be easy. I ultimately decided that I would rather make my room a home, though; I started by putting up my old signs on my new door.

Despite the ups and downs, the truth is that we are always moving forwards, moving outwards. There are things that are cyclic, memories and places to visit and revisit, but each time we visit we are full of new memories, new experiences, new knowledge. Having walked all over Boston, I often cross paths with places I’ve been previously, and I’ll always go, oh, I’ve been here, some months ago, with so and so for such and such reason. Seeing it again isn’t the same as re-living it, though, and as we visit places and feelings over and over we gain more thoughts, more focus, more life. Being back in MacGregor is different, and it certainly isn’t being in Next, but it is another step outward, another step away from the exodus, another step into the great unknown of the future.

I’m looking outwards today, to the rest of the summer, and I’m both scared and excited. I’ll be trying to do things that I’ve always thought of as hard, like running and cooking for myself. I’ll be working virtually at a Big Tech Company, writing code and trialing some of my skills out in the Real World. I’ll be trying to keep up some of my other skills in the background, like speaking Spanish and Chinese, and writing poems and short stories. There is much to do, much to discover, and much room to grow. I welcome it all with cautious but open arms.

two shelves above a desk next to a window

a new home

To keep my focus,06 and to honor my contractual obligations I won’t be blogging during my internship, which starts on Monday. But I’ll keep track of the everything of it all, and I’ll see you all on the other side, with a little more knowledge, and a little more life experience in my back pocket, in twelve weeks time.


The concept for this blog post comes from a very specific form of double-elimination used at our NSDA district’s national qualifiers, back when I debated in high school. You could lose two rounds—if you had lost no rounds, you would be “up”; if you had lost one round, you would be “down”; if you lost two rounds, you would be “out.” Here is a blurry photo from back in 2018, all the way from before I even read the blogs regularly:

blurry sheet with columns labeled up, down, out with numbers underneath

  1. Bluebikes are a service where you can check out bikes for a set period of time. there are stations all over the Boston area, so you can bike for essentially wherever you want; the membership is subsidized by MIT, and provides unlimited 45-minute rides. back to text ↑
  2. wear your helmet kids back to text ↑
  3. for the first shot, they didn't even give me a Band-Aid. i told my mother this and she called me 'weak' (娇气) back to text ↑
  4. the full lyrics to the song can be found in the description of the video, which is unfortunately un-captioned. back to text ↑
  5. 1.2 km back to text ↑
  6. and to honor my contractual obligations back to text ↑