Reflecting on 2023

· Dev Purandare

I always love the dawn of a fresh new year; it is a time full of promises, a time to reflect on the good and the bad things from the last year and plan another trip around the sun. Yet, the start of 2023 was pretty miserable for me. It stemmed from a difficult 2022, and it seemed like I was losing a war of attrition on multiple fronts; my research was going nowhere, my friends were moving away, I was lonely, having no meaningful relationships, I was facing another quarter of having to TA to support my PhD, and it seemed only to be a matter of time before I dropped out or was kicked out of the program. I was adrift; worse, I hadn’t processed any of this, opting to not feel anything rather than feel the pain. The only way we can see the outer world is through the electrical signals interpreted by our brain; thus, it is no surprise that our mental state affects how we see things.

It was one of the brightest days; the sun coming out after days of rain always brings out the best in Santa Cruz: fluorescent green grasses, piercing blue skies, bright sunshine, and a warm sunny day. 2023 could not have started on a better note after a rainy and cloudy end to 2022. The UCSC campus wilderness was beautiful, with gurgling water and the intoxicating scent of damp redwoods; even the dead and rotting wore beautiful crowns of colorful mushrooms. It was like walking through a dream; the redwoods were dancing to the celestial music, the world seemed to be at peace, the hawks and ravens soared in the winter sun, and the world was so colorful all you could do was to try to take it all in and remember it. We hiked along old trusty trails, guided by little forest spirits, marveling at the beauty of all that there is; we ran into eccentric people all enjoying the last day of vacation before 2023 would begin, bringing all its good and bad. There is only so long that you can forget where you are before you start returning to your self, and if your self is in distress and you had a joyful time, brace for the whiplash.

Perhaps it was the fact that everything was wrong: I had not slept well, was in an insecure space mentally, and had eaten the wrong food at the wrong time. But more likely, it was the fact that I was pretending everything was great when it wasn’t, and no amount of distractions or chemicals would change the truth. Winter sun in California is as sneaky as a fox you see; it seems brighter than summers, but now you see it, and now it is gone, leaving you to ponder the beautiful fall sunsets before the dark and cold night sets in. And the majestic redwoods from earlier in the day tower over you, the babbling water sounds conspiratorial, and the shadows sneak up on you. You start to notice that the moss and mushrooms you marveled at a few hours ago thrive on death, and the scent of the forest you enjoyed is the smell of decay; the forest is eerily silent now, as redwoods always are.

The scariest part of a bad time for me is the feeling that it will never end, for the scary thing about hell is not the punishment but the eternity. The most beautiful dreams can turn into nightmares. Now, the forest is silent, except for the distant howls of the wolf. I hear someone whistling, calling me, inviting me into darkness. My friends, who now seem distant, as if on another plane, are they really friends? They seem to be whispering something, talking about me. Is that water flowing on the trail? It looks suspiciously red. I hear voices, ““Are you having trouble grieving?”” one of them asks. I want out, I want to go home, I want to be in a place I feel safe, I want it to stop. Except I realize there is no home. I am in no condition to get where I live, for it lacks the security a home provides and stands as a monument to my failure and insecurities. I want out, but out of what? I am nowhere; I don’t have anywhere to go, and I don’t have anyone to help me. I am all alone among a graveyard of skeletons with rivers of blood; the darkness calls out to me; it is inviting and promising.

Many things make sense in hindsight, and overall, it has been a very challenging but fruitful year. In 2023, I reflected, and I responded more than I reacted. 2024 will be a big year for me; it will be full of changes in what I do, where I live, my friends, and people close to me. And while the uncertainty is terrifying, sometimes you must make the leap and hope you feel better afterward. My goal for 2024 is to cultivate equanimity, to respond rather than react, and to be deliberate in my decisions. I spent a long time being buffeted by forces outside my control, adrift, unsure of what to do or where to go; I hope to change that. It looks like another cloudy and rainy end to a year in Santa Cruz, with a sunny start to 2024, and I am looking forward to another trip around the sun.