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river

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Oct 20, 20215 min read

"What drives you to keep going?" someone asked me once.

"The belief that there exists beauty and joy in the world worth living for," I replied.

The latter I've explored analytically, experimentally, arriving a few midnights ago at the realization that simply doing the things I enjoy is what keeps me looking forward to the next day. My mom, reading my Updately, tells me I can't depend on others for happiness and need to find it within myself, and I suppose this is what she meant. When Skyler comes to me for advice, which at first I doubt I can give, I eventually tell him the same: find the thing that excites you and double down on it. Ignore your weaknesses where possible and fight the urge to generalize, to preserve optionality.

The former brings me to a totally different mindstate. 2020 was kaleidoscopic, I wrote in the year's reflection: kaleidoscopic in the colors and patterns the year contained for me, and kaleidoscopic in the shattering of my lens that exposed these colors in the first place. The vehicles for beauty that come to mind are books and seminar classrooms, but these are only proxies that speak to something deeper, something I sought and failed to and mostly accidentally succeeded at capturing and creating through my own stumbling words.

These are the thoughts that come to my mind as I read Vivien's latest Updately post, the most recent of seven she's graced the platform with. Her narrative is propelled by italicized lines of poetry and colon-marked literary quotes as easily as mine have become by tech aphorisms and references to mass-worshipped founders.

"How is your life so beautiful?" I exclaimed to Vivien one night, reading her update while sitting in David's room across from her. For a brief period I felt like I experienced life in a comparable way, with crisp New England snow substituted for California sunsets. My own little snippets on my sparse blog, unexpectedly but obsessively read by a few close friends, captured the moments of meaning and serenity, discrete but undeniably giving rise to a larger continuous motion. As the volume of my writing doubled, 10x'd, and eventually increased by two orders of magnitude over the next year, individual entries really did become indistinguishable amidst the overall flow.

But the hits also became only glancing ones, a stream I could only feel as I stepped through on my way rather than a river whose currents could carry me. I think about implementing like buttons and user groups as Vivien's words run over me. Step, step, perpendicular; swish, swish, and I'm back on dry land. Jahazel completes the $100K heart on my newly-whiteboarded wall, David gifts me a cat gazing out of an arched window, and I scribble physics diagrams on my tablet rather than stem the flow.

I click one back in Vivien's entries.

"Also learned that I'll never be good at a lot of things, and maybe it's my fault because I just don't put in enough effort, but anyway, it's not as devastating as I thought it'd be."

By way of nested quote I wonder if this pursuit of beauty will always evade me, remain orthogonal to the direction I tread no matter how deeply I would like to wrench myself otherwise every time I realize. Maybe if I started creative writing earlier, if I had gone to a better middle school, if I had gotten into a suitable college the first time...

I'm willing to accept that. I'm willing to be mediocre. I'm willing to love whatever steps I'm able to take. "...a marathon can only be run a mile, quarter mile, or stride length at a time. To love the pavement, the trail, the hill up or down in front of you, is more than enough."

I click one more back in Vivien's entries and I'm surprised to find the same ideas in four other languages. I'm surprised I hadn't read it yet. I'm surprised to scroll down and see my name mentioned. I'm surprised to read my own words, spoken and remembered and forgotten and remembered. Folded within those words are all I've written now, an admiration of narrative power I so long for myself.

An old friend sent me their admissions officer's comments on their application that they got their hands on:

"She strikes me as a young woman who is unafraid of feeling, unafraid of caring and who channels that energy to present the most authentic version of herself and in so doing empowers her peers to do the same."

"i feel like this describes u too", they tell me.

In the moment, I failed to see how that could be true. My friend seemed to be describing an old version of me that they now knew more intimately than I did. "we are v similar in some ways I think", I reply. I cut across the stream and continue on my way.

What I realize now is that, so long as I'm in the right geography, the streams I cross must meet rivers at some point. My friend's message flows from one that I've long since lost sight of, and that's not worth following. But perhaps I will eventually stumble upon tributaries, whose flows anticipate rather than mourn the currents I seek. Perhaps, when I dip my toe in them, I will subconsciously adjust my course, and do so bit by bit over time until one day I hear in front of me the glorious roar of this thing I call a beautiful life. Or maybe this river is a delusion, an invention, altogether. But either way, along the river or far from it, forward motion is a process of putting one foot in front of the other. So I step...

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