Remembering an accidental encounter with Toni MorrisonLessons on living in the present—even in fleeting moments.
Seven years later I have come to understand why the auditorium was full that evening. Richardson Auditorium is right next to the Holder Hall, the dormitory I stayed in for two years at Princeton. If you have ever watched A Beautiful Mind, Holder Hall is the same building where one of the last scenes in the film were shot. In that scene, faculty members pay tribute to John Nash (Russell Crowe) by laying down their pens on a table in front of Nash as news spread on campus that he won the Nobel Prize.
Richardson is just a couple of minutes walk from that room. The rear face of the building is one of the iconic places on campus, where many snap their graduation pictures.
It was my first time entering Richardson. A member of staff ushered me towards the balcony as the ground floor seating was entirely occupied. The reason I had rushed to the building—was for a girl. Just a few weeks before in September 2012, I had gone on a hiking trip. Princeton organises a week-long outdoor trip for its incoming freshmen, and my excursion was in Harriman State Park in New Jersey. The theme of the trip was “Nature and Spirituality,” where we paused every so often and enjoyed the nature and friendships around us.
I had embarked on the trip just a few days after landing in the US. I was the sole international student, besides one of the trip leaders, who was from Qatar. For the first time in my life, I ate tortillas (which I realised was just a different kind of roti) and M&Ms.
The girl was also on the trip. She listened intently to what others had to say. In retrospect, she was probably being friendly and was politely trying to fit in with a group of strangers. But that did not prevent sparks of teenage infatuation in me.
These sparks were alive for a few months. One day she asked if I wanted to join her to the auditorium. I did not ask much about the event and said yes. We met in front of Richardson, walked upstairs and found a spot high up on the balcony. As I was ushered towards a seat, I noticed a glass mosaic covering a quarter of the wall behind the stage. The silent red, blue and green-tinted glasses had much to speak to an audience facing the stage. I felt I could stare at the scene for hours.
Once I settled in my seat, I noticed an older woman at the centre of the stage. People listened to her intently. She was reading from a book. I only half understood what she was saying. A lot of thoughts in my mind popped up about the girl sitting next to me. The other reason for my lack of comprehension was language: back in those days, it still pained me to comprehend spoken English entirely. I had to listen very intently to understand what someone was saying fully.
The faint memory that lingers is the speaker’s soothing voice and my racing heart—as I was sitting next to the girl. Later, as the Q&A session started, the girl said she had to leave. I did not see a reason to stay behind and accepted her dinner invitation. Unfortunately, a few weeks later, I found out that she was in a relationship, so the thing didn’t go anywhere.
But going back to the time I spent inside the auditorium, little did I know what I got myself into that night. All these years that memory was latent until I read the news that the legendary Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison passed away.
She was a Princeton faculty and had come to campus in October 2012 for a reading of her book! The events that night suddenly started to make sense. I realised why the hall was in awe listening to the speaker on the stage.
I spent around an hour in the auditorium. My encounter with Morrison was fleeting, for I had not realised the treasure that lay in front of me. Looking back at my Princeton experience, I could recall many similar stories. Many nationally and internationally acclaimed professors, politicians, researchers, celebrates and the likes visited the campus for lectures, semi-formal interactions and dinner with students. In Princeton, there was a saying that as a student, you could only select two among the three: study, sleep and socialise.
Over the years, I learnt to make time for all three, but in 2012, I was a freshman trying to navigate college life. Meeting these famed people usually fell in the third category of events, which was something I did not feel guilty skipping. A part of me wants to harbour some regret for having missed some of those opportunities or not being fully present. The other understands that circumstances were different back then.
This other part wants to learn a lesson.
But reflecting on this fleeting encounter with Morrison, I hope I learn to keep my attention attuned and experience realities to the fullest. It isn’t really about measuring the value of people by their awards, or by the societal metric of prestige, but by the wisdom they impart from their presence.
It is for this reason that I wish I had paid attention to Morrison that night. It was a rare chance that she was taking time out to share her experiences in the form of reading and musings.
What is gone cannot be relieved, but we can use the moments we have to create memories that last beyond us and time. Morrison is with us no more, but she has left her works behind.
In future, I hope to delve into them to trail some of the wisdom she has left behind. She devoted her life to sharing that wisdom in the form of writing.
For others, it could be via films or paintings or composition or dance or research or taking care of kids—the list could go on. If nothing else, it could be in the form of a company that others might cherish for life—like what Morrison did that evening with a stranger from across the oceans—unbeknown to her.
Today, as I take tiny steps in writing, I fondly remember the accidental encounter with Morrison. Perhaps my subconscious registered something that my conscious mind did not pay attention to. Just perhaps!