Lost and found at Yale: Looking up and looking back

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Looking up at the ceiling in the Memorial Room in Harkness Tower, used as the chapel by Buddhists at Yale (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Kerri Lu ’14 has contributed occasional stories to YaleNews since her freshman year. As she embarks on her newest adventure — teaching English to Hong Kong students as part of the Yale-China Teaching Fellowship — she looks back at her years at Yale.

It’s so easy to lose yourself at Yale. I’ve seen it happen again and again, at multiple points of this long journey, with different people — yet always with the same kind of joyful serendipity: a friend misses dinner because she loses track of time exploring New Haven and catching up with an old roommate; the guy who never speaks in section launches into a passionate five-minute defense of the reading everyone else hated, ending with an embarrassed apology and a big smile; your entryway neighbor is up at 3 a.m. on a Friday, alone in your residential college library, finishing work on the extracurricular event he created.

We lose ourselves in the people we meet and build homes with, the projects, professors, papers, and problem sets; the activities we dive into; the New Haven restaurants we can’t wait to try; and the books and ideas we can’t stop thinking about long after the semester has ended. For four years, we willingly lose sleep and sanity over things that seize our attention and don’t let go. They make us obsessive, hungry, shower-less for days on end, and excited beyond ourselves.

For me, one of these obsessions was the ceiling on the ground level of the Buddhist Chapel in Harkness Tower [formally the Memorial Room, a space used by campus Buddhists and other groups —ed.]. The space is unlike any other I’ve encountered at Yale. It is expansive and empty, but not hollow — like a ship’s hull that lets you breathe in and out in time to the ocean rising within you. All over the walls and the ceiling are carved intricate designs, words, and names. The hall is lit by the large panes of detailed stained glass windows lining one stone wall. Through it, the sun illuminates the mosaic figures of the likes of Herodotus and “Reason.”

Kerri Lu ’14 in Hong Kong, where she is a Yale-China Teaching Fellow. (Photo by Jef Benigno)

Places like these deserve to be memorialized in poems, songs, and profound musings about the universe – so, of course, I offered it the best tribute that I could: by taking naps there in between classes during my sophomore year.

There are things at Yale that are beyond description or explanation. Like the sense of complete happiness at the first massive blooming of the cherry trees in the Law School courtyard, or coming upon a class on observing babies and small animals listed in the Bluebook. You just can’t help but smile.

For me, waking up to that gorgeous ceiling in the Buddhist Chapel was on this list. As you lie on your back, the large hanging incense burner extends toward you from the center of the ceiling, reversing your own sense of gravity as it reaches towards you and the ground. You begin to float in the complicated swirls of the lattice carvings while feeling perfectly grounded in the ceiling’s geometry. The shapes are at once finite and endless, fine and heavy. They look cake-like, but you know from the cold touch of the walls they are made of stone.

In those few precious moments after I would wake up, gazing at the ceiling, I would lose myself and find in myself an absolute stillness. It was impossible to take it all in with my eyes, let alone my brain. Every time I woke up, I found myself focusing on a different part of the stone, picking out patterns to add to the whole picture. I knew that by examining small sections of the ceiling closely, I could get closer to understanding the whole façade than by attempting to look at everything at once.

A month after the dizzying sentimentality of graduating and saying goodbye to Yale, after four long, fulfilling years, I am still at a loss for words to sum up my college experience. Like the Buddhist Chapel, the memories of my years at Yale can’t be defined in easy greeting card phrases or pithy one-liners. The moments I return to again and again are just fragments from the whole: walking to Mamoun’s Falafel in flip flops in the rain at 2 a.m. with a friend, laughing and slipping the whole way; accidentally staying in the Sterling stacks past closing time and hearing the sound of my boots echo through the miles of bookcases; the elevator ding at my on-campus job and the warmth of my boss’ greetings; the first New Blue concert I went to and the goosebumps that wouldn’t go away; my proudest paper of Freshman Year; my thesis; the first and last time I tried Model U.N.; the failed radio show I tried to put on with a friend who became like my sister; my roommates, my “suities,” Pierson College.  

As students, we seem to know this need to focus instinctively. Instead of continuing to try everything and anything as we did in our freshman craze, we start specializing. We carve out spaces that belong to us, regular menu items that waiters everywhere start to identify with us. Instead of studying at every library, we choose our regular spot, sometimes down to a particular cubicle in the stacks, that special table. We become known for a major, special interest groups, a certain community or food group.

Now, as we have rounded off our “bright college years,” everything is opening up again. Possibilities re-emerge, and we have new spaces to grow.

Each time we revisit a space or an experience, we discover new things about the past, even though the moment is long gone. We grow, and our memories change with our new perspectives. I hope that we examine our memories the same way that we’ve learned to challenge ideas and thoughts, to hold on to true friends, the most integral events, and all the interim moments – a professor’s kind encouragement, the study break where we all ate too much, the unknown master’s tea speaker who changed the minds of everyone in the room, that one frisbee toss on a slow, spring evening— all of the smaller details comprising the years when we changed, failed, laughed, and grew together.

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