I once watched a video of a color-blind man seeing purple for the first time after he received a special pair glasses for his birthday. It was heartwarming to watch him tear up over what most of us would consider otherwise mundane objects: a Lysol can, the leaves of a potted plant, a wall covered in Post-Its. The video ended with the man venturing outside, breathing heavily as he knelt on the stone path and ran his fingers through the green, green grass.
I felt the pressing need to reevaluate my surroundings after watching that video, perhaps to see if I could capture an inkling of the same awe and clarity that the man must have felt after seeing his world represented in a whole new light. Looking back, studying abroad in a city like London, both so old and so new, helped me do just that. I often found myself pausing and appreciating the little things that I usually took for granted—like color, movement, line. A girl with royal blue jeans, sitting on the steps of Charing Cross. A waste collector pulling bags of trash in a wire trolley, body slightly bent. A woman with an emerald green bag, peeling the foil off a San Pellegrino. A bicycle with a pink, spotted seat.
In particular, I remember one instance where a professor took our writing class on a four-mile trek along the River Thames, giving us plenty of opportunities to observe things at a slower pace. Along the way, we noticed that some of the buildings (especially Tube stations) were lined with colorful, glossy ceramic, of which our professor explained that the colors were meant to serve as a sort of coding system; in the past, when much of the population was still illiterate, travelers used the color of the buildings to determine their location. It was almost strange to imagine that the ceramic tiles once served a linguistic purpose; now, they seemed like more of an artistic choice to the passing traveler, standing out against the newer buildings made of gray cement and shiny, black windows.
At the end of our trek, we reached a point on the Thames where we could actually climb down onto a narrow strip of beach and see the water up close. The beach was not made of sand but of multicolored rock, glass, and bone. As we crunched our way to the water’s edge, our professor told us that we could easily find the remains of artifacts that were centuries old. The beach was just a collective space where different eras had washed up. Perhaps, in one spot, you’d find bleached, discarded bones from a Victorian meat market. In another, the shards of Roman ceramic bowls. Crusted oyster shells, cigarette pipe tips, the round curve of a piece of sea glass.
I’ve been thinking a lot more about what it means to be a writer after graduation, and while I don’t have an exact answer, I think a writer’s responsibility, at least, is to see and feel widely—to hunt for the details, whether they’re across the ocean or right under our own two feet. Standing on the rocky shore of the Thames two years ago, I remember feeling simultaneously so big and so small. Over 75 years ago, perhaps the very spot I was standing on would’ve been flattened by a German bomb. And yet, in its place, there was growth and life: in the soft, bobbing tide licking up against red rock and the sheets of moss growing upward along the stone walls. A picture of vibrant restoration.
We ended the class trip that day by filling our pockets with as many treasures as we could carry, smooth muddy rock and tiny chips of blue and white ceramic alike. The sun was setting, and the city skyline was a hazy pastel. As we were leaving, a classmate of mine looked back at me from his spot on the beach, a dark shape against the backdrop of descending dusk.
“Look,” he said, smiling, shuffling his feet. “We’re standing on history.”
Rikki Li graduated from Pitt in 2017 as double major in English and Psychology with a Public and Professional Writing certificate. She participated in the Pitt in London program in Fall 2016. She now works at Disney Shanghai through their Disney English program.