There is a flag atop the Eli, the tall apartment building on Church Street by the Courthouse, behind Timothy Dwight College. It is one of the many things you see everyday in the backdrop but not notice, like the bikes parked by your entryway, the parking meters, the birds. It was just one of these things for me till I saw it on the night of my first ever snowstorm. It was the only thing that was neither static nor silent when the rest were getting steadily covered in white without offering any resistance. It seemed taut, distraught. I could hear it brave the wind in the silence of the night.
The next morning was calm. The flag was still there, waving casually, just as it did on any other day, but it was no longer like the bikes by your entryway, the parking meters, the birds. It had more weight, a greater presence, gravity, and command. I was at the window to see what had become of it after the storm first thing in the morning. And I stayed there for a while just looking at it curiously.
It became a daily ritual to look at it while walking across the courtyard on the way to class, and then again in the evening on the way to dinner. It was like a pulse, indicating the passage of time and the ebb and flow of things. It was also a totem for the ability to endure. Sometimes, after a rough day I would sit on the bench to look it at for longer than usual. Sometimes I would even notice some signs of wear and tear. I was never sure if they were actually there or if they were simply artifacts of expectation.
As we leave this town to start in the uncertain “real” world, we can be certain about the snowstorms, the passage of time, the ebb and flow of things. But we can also be certain about the ability to endure. A day may come when you and I feel some wear and tear and begin to doubt this certainty. On that day we may not even remember much of this place or of each other, but we should certainly make a trip to this town, sit on the bench for a few moments, and look at the flag atop the Eli.
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.” - Rabindranath Tagore
Shot at Folly Island, South Carolina with a mobile phone. Sped up 200x.
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if i should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference
Ever since coming to Germany, I had been wondering why the Germans were a little too humble about their national identity. This became more and more noticeable as I traveled to her neighbors. In Luxembourg and Switzerland, they had the national flag hanging by every other window. At the Paris Airshow, they draped the sky in tricolore. While her neighbors clearly celebrated their distinct identities, Germany simply appeared not to care. During the second week, I went to the mall to shop for souvenirs. I wanted to get a German flag, but I couldn’t find any shop selling one. It seemed I was more excited about Germany than Germans themselves.
Last night I visited my ‘co-boss’, Jonas, in the city to borrow his bike. I was going to leave from the door, but he insisted I stayed over for a beer. I yielded and we sat down in his balcony for a conversation that could be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking that I have ever had since starting college. It answered all the questions.
We started off talking about life in Germany, the clubs in the downtown, the world-cup, . It was pretty normal until we started to discuss the german technology industry and ultimately the second world war. It all happened before Jonas’ time, yet it is something he can not not forget. Before he started school, his mother made him watch movies about it. At school, all the literature and history he ever learnt was about the war and the damage done by Germany. He was told that his grandparents were evil, and the entire nation guilty for letting a tyrant regime take over. On his part, he still wonders if he needs to apologize for whatever happened, but thinks he can feel proud for postwar Germans who rebuilt a Germany that was literally bombed back to the stone age. Yet, in the German Parliament, its not that easy: Last year there was a walk out after a representative asserted that he was proud to be German. Jonas then himself pointed out the lack of any German flags. He told me how the sporadic flags I could see around was a very recent development, sparked by the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
While the Germans are uncomfortable and regretful of their past, they do love their country. Perhaps even more than themselves. According to a recent poll, 80% of the population is against lowering taxes! Jonas himself is against lowering taxes. He pays a 50% tax on his salary. He said the country needed a lot of resources if it wanted to pursue projects like replacing all its nuclear power generation capacity with renewable one.
There is a lot Pakistan can learn from the Germany of today. I think the Germans have best realized how to secure a future through self-accountability, self-improvement, and pragmatism, something we Pakistanis have yet to discover. We lament the electricity crisis, yet less than 2% of our people pay taxes. We complain about the ignorance of other nations, yet spend less than 2% of our GDP on education. We can neither guarantee security of a life of an ordinary citizen nor of a state governor. Our lack of strategy and shifting national priorities have turned our garrison cities into safe havens for the world’s most notorious terrorists. We will liberate Kashmir, but fail to protect minorities at home. We fret over our sovereignty and fight to show we are in control, while we need other nations’ money to finance our own defense. We moan that we have been victims of circumstances, but fail to see how we have victimized ourselves.
Jonas’ love or loyalty doesn’t stop him from accepting what was wrong with his country. He doesn’t think loving his country entails mindlessly struggling over pride, ideology, writ, or power. He thinks its about realizing what’s wrong and then doing what’s right, what makes sense. Maybe that’s how Germany has managed to rebuild itself from rubble to into the largest economy in Europe. Maybe that’s why, despite a land mass half the size of Texas, Germany exports more than any western nation. Maybe if we take a step back and introspect for a bit we will be able to emulate a fraction of Germany’s success. For now, even that small fraction will be enough.
The Art in Burning: Heptane droplet burning in microgravity in an an experiment on board the International Space Station. The green mess is the soot and the yellow artifact is the path of the droplet that becomes smaller as it burn.(image credit: NASA)
“ To me is all, I to myself am lost,
Who the immortals’ fav’rite erst was thought;
They, tempting, sent Pandoras to my cost,
So rich in wealth, with danger far more fraught;
They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown’d,
Deserted me, and hurl’d me to the ground. ”
Marienbad Elegy by Goethe