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Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

I was eight years old when my grandpa gave me my first journal one summer day in Nanjing. My grandpa’s the most prolific writer I’ve ever known, partly by necessity. Years ago, he underwent an operation because of a cancer that has effectively robbed him of his voice. I don’t know what his words sound like, and I never would have been able to communicate with him were it not for our shared knowledge of English. In his room stacked high with books of all sorts, I would sit on his bed and write to him while he sat on his stool eating a late lunch and watching history talks on TV. From the hospital, he had an unlimited collection of manuals with red binding, and we would write notes to each other for hours on their blank backs. 

The next summer, he beckoned me into his room as soon as I arrived and showed me a much higher-quality notebook from the bookstore that he had bought to transcribe our conversations. But years later, he still had the red-lined manuals from when I was eight. 

My first journal, the one he got me, was thick and took me nearly two years to finish. During this time, I was embarrassed to have a diary, and the only people who knew about its existence were my grandparents and parents, who I’m sure read it for laughs. Since it was predominantly filled with matter-of-fact recountings of what Ninja Turtles episode I was about to watch, I didn’t particularly care.

But as the years passed, I found myself writing with much more care. I had begun to fear forgetting. This was partly a result of my early days writing down simply what had happened that day; later, when I read over these old entries, I wondered just how many ordinary yet revealing events I was neglecting to transcribe, thus losing them to the constant stream of new, transient memories. I resolved to write more, capturing vignettes of my day and snapshots of time. My writing habit bled over into countless Word docs written during late nights. In high school, I began to write poetry as well. Taking those moments to reflect and push my thoughts onto the page kept a quiet peace inside me.

I stopped writing as much when I came to Princeton. I sometimes felt a lack of energy, or a lack of time, or a burden of priority. There are things that people do to seek solace and recharge, and my thing – writing – was becoming scarcer and scarcer. 

Over the summer after freshman year, I rediscovered some of the rejuvenation that writing afforded me. As much as writing sometimes entails reliving the past, which has certainly influenced my propensity for nostalgia, it’s also my most familiar way of living in the present. Princeton is a blur; days and weeks pass without notice, and suddenly half a semester is gone. Writing centers me. It’s only in the quiet moments that I can appreciate the chaotic beauty of Princeton. 

It’s important, as you embark on your semester here, whether it be your first or last, to do those things that give you great joy, or rather, great tranquility. There’s often a temptation or an inexorable pull to let your time pass in the current of clubs and academics, of once again filling your current stage of life with plans to improve the next. I urge you to afford yourself some space from this relentless process. 

For me, I think of my grandpa, crouched on a stool over some noodles, surrounded by his spire of books. I think of the pages I’ve filled with memories and the nights I’ve lived quietly. I write.

Richard Ma is a sophomore from Kirksville, Missouri. He can be reached at richardma@princeton.edu.

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