In the earlier days of quarantine, I was rummaging through my childhood room in Florida and happened upon a letter I wrote at age13 to an older version of myself. In the letter, I asked the questions that any young girl would seek answers from her more mature and (ideally) cooler self: Are you in a relationship? (No). How is insert childhood friend here? (We haven’t spoken in years). Do you still actively insert creative hobby here? (On occasion). Did you end up at USC? (Weirdly on point, but yes). The letter was both nostalgically heartwarming and an odd awakening that much of my life had indeed followed the heart of my13-year-old self. So, I did what any existential 20-year-old would do while locked away in her parents’ house during a pandemic: I wrote my future self another letter and tucked it away for my older self to find and criticize through the natural retrospective lens of age.
As I write this letter, I’m 21 years old and in the midst of winter break following the fall semester of my senior year at USC. I spent the majority of the semester sitting in my tastefully decorated Los Angeles townhouse (with the first single bedroom I’ve had all of college), but now back at home, I’ve mostly been binging The Crown and listening to every song written by the band Flyte. Joe Biden is the President-elect following the traumatic Trump era, and we are in the ninth month of the COVID-19 pandemic — though a distant, more promising tomorrow is looming with the gradual distribution of the long-awaited vaccine. In the future, if this piece gets lost in my amalgam of USC-related writing, I want to recall that this letter was originally written as the final for my Thematic Option CORE 104 class titled “Theories of Decolonization and Revolution,” which was taught by comparative literature Professor Neetu Khanna. (Ultimately, this letter is a grand, historic document — I’m very proud of its construction, even if the dramatic writing later proves cringe-worthy from a more “mature” standpoint).
Letters have become an unintentionally important symbol of growth for me throughout the year 2020, a year that pushed, pulled, flew, trapped, and sat me in so many locations that I began to lose my very conception of place and, further, myself. The days themselves began to blur together, as monotonous days turned to late nights and late nights turned to missed sunrises and missed sunrises turned into a cry to make up for all the lost time as vibrant sunsets welcomed another day’s close. In the absence of constructed time and stabilized space — two elements I’ve considered crucial to processing my life — I’ve frequently been reduced to all anyone truly has at the end of each day: myself. Loneliness, then, begets one of two outcomes: More loneliness, or lonely people brought together.
Like many of my peers in the class of 2021, the year 2020 began with my first overseas adventure (in Greece specifically, for those wondering) and now ends with unprecedented uncertainty, with a global health crisis, civil unrest, a critical election, unconventional academic year, and tremendous personal loss sandwiched in between — all mostly digested behind the closed doors of various bedrooms. Where physical community was not provided upfront, we’ve been forced to reconstruct what was left abandoned — use our imagination, I dare say — to cope and establish hope, and that may just be the most beautiful thing that’s come out of this unfortunate mess.
For my CORE 104 class, we read a piece by Benedict Anderson titled Imagined Communities, which details the process of building a nation from ideation to execution, whether starting from scratch or revitalizing a society from the rubble of colonization. I am fascinated by Anderson’s use of the word “imagined” for its creative undertones and promise of collective faith, even in the absence of physical connection. When the pandemic first hit in March and confounded us to isolate in our repetitious homes, the world as we knew it fell apart. Initially, I sought life in my memories that I clutched onto so tightly, but memories only got me so far because the past does not contain a promise that tomorrow will come. Instead, there is true power in imagination, not for any concrete assurance of another day (“concrete” and “imagination” are oxymorons, after all), but for its pursuit of… something better, something to be shared, even without the specifics laid out. As Anderson writes, “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”
Upon shifting from memory to imagination, I began unconsciously reassembling my sense of community in accordance with the paradoxes of nationalism, as outlined by Anderson (and reinterpreted for my purposes): Understanding my evolving environment both for what it is and what it was, desiring security in a community-based identity, and assessing the upheaval of political and philosophical frameworks, both on interpersonal and national scales. With these three points inadvertently molding my perception of myself in the world, I’ve been able to uniquely experience receiving the world as it receives me, captured best by Anderson’s striking line: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” Adopting a new nationalism may always pose risk and vulnerability, but done well, a new nation and national identity are born and grow up better than the one preceding it.
In high school, I served as the lead editor for my yearbook, and one of my duties was to produce a theme that would guide our creative process. Choosing that theme also made me responsible for designating the lasting impression my peers would have of the year, even after the memories were long gone. For my senior year of college, I’ve capitalized on my past yearbook experience in tandem with my learnings from this strange time to assign a theme to this period of my life: Reimagining and Returning Home. I then wrote the following entry in my personal yellow Moleskin journal, dated August 30, 2020:
“But I love this timeline, truly, for its missing and disheveled fragments combined with the heightened awareness that comes from closed circles and forced repetition. Work and repeat. Play and repeat. Fight and repeat. Love and repeat. Whereas once my activities flowed in and out of each other in the larger, more open ecosystem that is the world, my wandering gaze has been limited to the same faces and spaces, which has forced me to actively search for (and passively embrace) deeper connection where outside forces have lost their molding grasp… I feel deep change brewing in me as this situation reestablishes in me what it means to be human for human’s sake, feeling for once how life’s beauty and meaning come by embracing yourself in context of your surroundings and knowing that there’s something to be shared and born out of every relational thing planned and unplanned.”
Not to brag on myself or equate myself to any great thinker, but I love that endnote: “There’s something to be shared and born out of every relational thing planned and unplanned.” If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that good and bad, right and wrong, and up and down are not fixed ideas with an inherent “correct” solution. Existing and persisting is a win in and of itself, and, above all, life moving forward is found where the two polarities interact, not where they drive each other away.
Just as 13-year-old Rowan had questions for her indeterminate older version, 21-year-old Rowan has questions for you: How is your heart? Where do you find community? How are the people you presently find community with doing in your future? Where do you find home? How has your definition of home changed? Where do you find yourself? Also, following Joe Biden’s election, how has our generation continued to transfer empathy into action?
I take back what I said earlier: I saw a sunrise once. After one late night at a dear friend’s house, I walked home at 6 a.m. on a warm California morning in August, where the sky’s creeping shades of baby pink and light blue greeted me like a long-lost friend, the kind of friend where nothing changes no matter how much time has passed. I found comfort in the brevity of her beauty, soaking in her soft embrace before getting two hours of sleep and repeating the motions of a so-called “day” once again. I hope to make more time to visit this ever-welcoming friend. A reminder to remember: The sunrise will always be there for me, for us all, protectively and lovingly peeking in between our drawn blinds every morning, even when we struggle to wake for ourselves.