BERKELEY'S NEWS • SEPTEMBER 26, 2022

Student in retrograde: A personal essay

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SOMA CHU | STAFF

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MARCH 19, 2022

I walk around the UC Berkeley campus and wonder how I ended up here. My academic trajectory might more aptly be described as a protracted wander: at 17, I drifted into my first community college because I knew going to college is a thing you are supposed to do, but I drifted right back out two semesters later. I moseyed on over to working in restaurants but quickly came to yearn for a respite from the job hazards — largely chain-smoking and casual alcoholism. My father always told me that the only careers I’d find security in were law and medicine, so with that I toddled into yet another community college with a newfound enthusiasm for biology. As it would turn out, my impromptu zeal was not enough to sustain me through the chemistry gauntlet. I rambled out of school and into working at a law firm because at the very least, my last stint in community college had shown me that I was not destined for a career in the field of medicine, but perhaps I’d have one in law? I strutted back to school with yet another new found purpose — nothing if not a community college connoisseur at this point — I would major in economics, like my mother had, and fall into the reliability of business and law. The roaming continued, and I waited for the moment of divine inspiration to strike where I’d figure out what I wanted to do, if and what I wanted to study, and who I wanted to be; but it simply never came. And so, I leisurely reclined into the dormant nature that was waiting, waiting for a better, smarter, surer version of myself.

Along the way, I have amassed an impressive collection of different versions of myself: All of the versions of me that could have been had I made different choices, been in different places, loved different people and wanted different things. Present me is always in a cowboy-style standoff with the blurry, barely-discernible outline of future me. I can’t say that anticipating the wants and aims of this fuzzy figure of the future has been a productive endeavor, but it has become habitual. Every time life offers me another decision, I turn to that ghostly figure in the future even though a broken magic eight ball that only ever answers with “ask again later” would comparatively be of more use than her. How are we supposed to know if we are being the best versions of ourselves? With all of the possible people I could have been and paths I could have taken, I never know if I’m picking the right version. The unfortunate but oddly reassuring reality is there are no versions of yourself to choose from — all you have is the you you’ve got right now.

With all of the possible people I could have been and paths I could have taken, I never know if I’m picking the right version.

My enduring dissatisfaction with this singular version of myself may be that my life has felt like a long series of one-step-forward, two-step-back epicycles, a perpetual retrograde that has been my ultimate downfall time and time again. While the Latin roots of retro and gradus may translate to backward step, the notion of retrograde is host to a multitude of different definitions and understandings. Astronomy understands retrograde as the perception of planets as seemingly backward-moving. Geology reads retrograde as the distinct metamorphic change that results from a decrease in temperature or pressures, producing features, such as reaction rims, which record a history of fluid migration. Chess considers retrograde to be a kind of analysis that evaluates the legality of a move — a genre of compositions and heterodox problems that asks players to use backward induction to determine which moves lead to the given position. In classical Latin, retrograde once referred to palindromic verses. The riddle goes, “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” (“we go in a circle at night and are consumed by the fire”). The Latin riddle can be read backward and forward — and each direction tells you of moths drawn to a flame.

My enduring dissatisfaction with this singular version of myself may be that my life has felt like a long series of one-step-forward, two-step-back epicycles, a perpetual retrograde that has been my ultimate downfall time and time again.

In my own life, retrograde is not merely a type of regression but a kaleidoscopic mode of reflection. The pervasive pressure to find a purpose or a passion has always been the backbone to my life. It has always been the invisible hand guiding every choice and decision I’ve made for myself. I’ve fixated over all of the points of regression and vowed to never let them happen again, but it’s absurd that I should feel so haunted by the very things that have created the person I am today: someone who got to try new things and meet interesting people and pursue the fields of study that piqued my interest — someone who got to wander.

I think about the person who I may not have planned to become but fell into being anyway. There was no version of myself I pictured ending up at UC Berkeley, but I think here you can read me backward and forward and know that my retrograde put me exactly where I should be, doing what I love.

Contact Lauren Martinez at 

LAST UPDATED

MARCH 19, 2022


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