Today is the ninth of June in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and ten.
One year ago on this day, Samir Paul started The Fish Tank, the blog of the Harvard Ichthus. Since then, we have generated 426 posts, including this one, more than one for every day of the year, covering the spectrum of philosophy, literature, mathematics, history, theology, science, testimony, art, as well as personal narrative and creative compositions. It’s been an incredible journey – it is an incredible torch, which Samir lit and passed on to the rest of us. All Glory and Honor and Power belong to God, and to His Kingdom.
I would like to speak well of Samir Paul.
Samir is a very, very dear friend of mine. I met him at my darkest hour. I had come back from my first semester off, completely devastated and disoriented from a combination of family, relationship and Harvardy problems. I had dashed all my hopes on the rocks – I felt completely shipwrecked, lost and alone. I knew I had to seek God, and put Him first in my life, or I would be lost forever. I first met Samir when I found a small ad in the Harvard Gazette for Professor Peter J. Gomes‘ Vocations Dinner. I think it may have been the very first such dinner. I had been thinking about going to seminary, so I decided to go. Samir was this cool, enthusiastic, dashing Indian dude who was seated next to me, and we got chatting. He told me he had just stepped up to take over the running of the Harvard Ichthus, which was only 6 years old (correct me if wrong) – all the existing staff had graduated, and he had stepped up to the plate.
I was astonished. You see, I had been doing magazine work, and also going to the Episcopalian Chaplaincy at Harvard, but I had started to feel that both those things were hollow for me, that I wasn’t really making real friends there. I had decided to cut both these things out of my life, at least until I could find God. So I asked him if he had a poetry and fiction editor. He said no. I said, “I’ll do it!” Samir proceeded to tirelessly make the rounds at the Christian fellowships on campus to promote the magazine. He didn’t really get back to me on the poetry and fiction thing, but I hounded him. Eventually, he sent me some poems he was considering. I edited them. And then he made me Poetry and Fiction Editor.
I don’t know the bit about how he got Nico and Anne to come on board, but I was so pleasantly surprised, because I knew Nico from a Christian Impact retreat which I had randomly decided to go on even though I didn’t know anybody because I missed my friend, Grace Tiao, who had also written for the Ichthus with the previous old guard, and who went to Christian Impact. I missed her so much, and since she was in Antartica at the time, I thought the next best thing was to go to this retreat to the same place I had last prayed with her and been blessed. I didn’t talk to anyone during this retreat – also, no one talked to me. I felt angry and bitter. But on the last night I decided to confess my loneliness to everyone there, and suddenly everyone gave me the most beautiful notes of encouragement in my anonymous paper bag for that purpose. But only Nico came up to me, and said, “You’re awesome!”
And I said to Nico, “No, you’re awesome! And your hair is like the feathery crown of a magnificent bird!” And Nico said, “Let’s be friends!” And because the pastor had preached on the last night of retreat that we should pray for a prayer buddy for 30 days to help cement the effect of this retreat, I said to Nico, “Do you want me to pray for you for 30 days?” and Nico said, “Yes!” and so we became prayer buddies. It was not too hard. I called him on alternate days for 2 minutes and shared what I needed prayer for and vice versa. Now Nico and I sometimes get into little tiffs on occasion. But because we prayed for each other for 30 days, we have a bond that will never be severed. He’s my prayer buddy, forever.
So I don’t know how Nico knew Samir, but Nico came on board. And Anne Goetz, my beautiful blonde Finnish sister, was also from the Episcopalian chaplaincy. I hadn’t said more than 2 words to her, really, but we got to know each other a little at the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship retreat at Toah Nipi. At this retreat, Samir Paul was in my group for prayer, and Anne and I took a walk in the woods. She told me that she was interested in the worldviews of literature. I found that fascinating. It fired my imagination, and I started evaluating the books I read more for the morality behind them. It made me want to write moral things. So we walked and we talked, and I told her that my pen is incredibly important to me.
As things started to come together, Samir, Anne, Nico and I looked around for successors and business managers and layout artists. We found Carolina Franch, and Annie Wang. And we hung out – it was great! I remember this moment of revelation in the Lion’s Den (Samir’s room): we were hanging out, eating samosas (?), celebrating something (maybe Samir’s birthday?), when suddenly Samir said he wanted to share a radio program with us. And so he did. It was a creative retelling of the Cain and Abel story. It was incredible. It was funny. It made me want to write like that. Then I wanted to share things I had written as well. And so I read them my poetry. You have no idea, I have been organizing poetry readings all my life, and there was not one as life-giving and incredible as this one. I felt affirmed in my gifts. I felt that for once, I could share what was in my heart and not suffer the worshipful silence and boredom that comes with normal poetry readings. I shared with my friends. I laughed with my friends. It was beautiful.
And then we went on our first journalism retreat, up to New Hampshire, to meet our benefactors, the Cecil B. Day Foundation. The Day Foundation gave us the first grant, and has been tiding us over with our print magazine. We drove up in a car together, musing about the dangerous roads, how we might make headlines: Christian Journalists Crash Into New Hampshire Oak! It was fun. We went to this conference, making Yale jokes, hoping to show all the others what an awesome bunch we were, how Harvard was, of course, the best and the first! Boy were we wrong. In fact, the Dartmouth Apologia was the most successful journal at this time. We learned so much from them. Primarily we learned that what sustained them was not in fact their magazine, but their community. They loved hanging out together! When we got there, we realized we had so much to learn! There was an incredible talk about graphics and layout which will stay with me forever. There was a talk about the craft of writing – and I was recommended an incredibly important book, A Syllable of Water. I was exhorted in my craft – advised about the dangers and joys of writing for God. And the biggest admonishment to us was this: we needed financial stability and accountability. Without which, we would die again, just as we almost had.
I think it really hit me when Paul, the man behind the Day Foundation, stood up and said, “Sustainability is very important, because this year, we almost lost a journal.” He meant us. I felt so bad. He had tears in his eyes. I felt very, very embarrassed, but very, very loved. Here was this old man, whom I had never met, from the other side of the world, who wept for us. He wept because we almost died. He wept because he loved us, even though he did not know us. I vowed that this magazine would go on. It could not die, with such love holding us up. It became our obsession to find a faculty adviser who would be the mentor of our publication, and also be the institutional memory of it, so that with the comings and goings of us students, it would never be left without successors.
I tried strenuously to find a successor for myself. I thought I did, but then it fell through. I was disheartened. Where could I find someone who had one foot in the publications scene and another foot in the Christian community? It seemed like an impossible task. Slowly I felt I had failed in my task. I felt lost, and moody about the whole thing. Also, during the HRCF retreat, at the end of it, I wildly enthusiastically pubbed the Ichthus. Samir was laughing in the audience, out of a mixture of embarrassment and happiness. In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to do. But I did it out of love for this magazine. However, this small action led to me feeling rejected again because I was over-enthusiastic, a frequent recurring theme of my life, unfortunately, from which I am still trying to learn.
In the summer of 2009, I wrote a few posts, but then started falling away from my duties. I was in New York, surrounded by strange people, with not enough to sustain me. But mostly, I was pursuing a dream that was ill-advised. I had put a lot of effort into getting this summer job, and it wasn’t working out. I felt like I had no authority to speak of God to others, because I felt God had left me. My involvement with the Ichthus dwindled. I felt like I was letting the Fishies down. And because I felt like I was letting them down, I avoided them. I came back Fall semester briefly, but couldn’t face Harvard. I left again, abandoning my duties. I didn’t even find a successor or finish the style guide I had started to guide my successor. I felt horrible.
In the meantime, God didn’t leave the magazine. He raised up Nico, who took over as Editor in Chief. He raised up Anne, who is now Managing Editor. I met Jordan Monge briefly at the end of 2009, and also John Joseph Porter. Jordan was Republican, which made me nervous. But I was glad we had a Republican on board! And she had such a clear heart for God, and such boldness. And I am so glad I am getting to know her better even now. Jops was great – he is the son of missionaries, and already totally immersed in the Christian blogosphere. I swear he will one day write the next Mere Christianity. Or at least, he should consider writing it. I say this because he was the one who reasoned with Jordan, who was a staunch atheist at the start of freshman year, and brought her to Christ. There were other people who were raised up whom I didn’t get to meet, but I recently met Chelsea Carlson and she is a wonderful writer and a woman of God. I also met my actual successor, Patrick Spence, because he lives in Currier House. (There is something about the Quad and Dunster/Mather – they contains an inordinate number of Fishies. The Benjamin syndrome, perhaps?) He was at breakfast, a blank sheet of paper in front of him. “This is the autobiography of my first nine months as a fetus,” he said. I demanded a copy. He wrote fake James Woods critiques on the back. I love Patrick. Plus, he’s Catholic, thus making our range on the ecumenical spectrum and among Harvard’s myriad fellowships even broader. I also read his poem in the latest issue of the Ichthus, and it is quite wonderful! So even though I dropped the ball, I feel the Fiction and Poetry of the Ichthus is in excellent hands.
The way I came back to writing for the Fish Tank was like this: I had attended Professor Nicholi’s legendary C.S. Lewis and Freud class Spring of 2009 along with Anne Goetz and Carolina Franch, as well as other friends. It was awesome. It was the most fun I’d ever had in a seminar, and also most stimulating. For my final project I had written a Screwtape letter to Prefrosh, drawing from my experience as a disillusioned Harvard undergraduate, about to graduate (or so I thought). I went to the introductory meeting for new Fishies at the start of the semester and met Roshni Patel. Later, I read her post on Clearing Search History, and was incredibly moved. I was very moved by her posts because they were intensely personal and life-giving, utterly bold in their declaration of personal testimony, unlike anything I had read so far on the Ichthus. I started reading the Fish Tank again, looking especially for her articles. Well, prefrosh season rolled around, and I thought, hm, I should dig up that letter. So I did, and I posted it on the Fish Tank. It got my creative juices flowing.
Then Anne Goetz was named as one of the Phi Beta Kappa 25 juniors. I was thrilled to bits, because I had always wanted to be one of those. It was a dream that had been unfulfilled but was now fulfilled in her. I demanded to see her and do her makeup for the ceremony. She came over, we had loads of fun picking out her outfit and I did her makeup. Now I had been dressing up and making myself up a lot since I came to Harvard. I had owned a small business in Singapore before I came here, and learned how to do makeup so as to not appear like a schoolgirl to clients. When I came, I kept looking for an outlet for this new form of creativity, and so I went to fancy dress parties, held my wonderful Resurrection Reading party (come as your favourite dead person!) and etc. But it all felt very hollow to me. I was just performing this role. It pushed people away, because I just seemed weird and snobby. I had also relinquished this my junior year, decided I would go around in a hoody and sweatpants like everyone else. I also decided to have a birthday firesale, to which the Ichthus came and Samir wore my hats and scarves. Nico teases me mercilessly about my scarf collection. I agree – it’s deplorably huge, but to be fair, I knit most of them.
It was so good to give these things away, especially to a woman as beautiful as Anne, and to honor her for her accomplishments! It also freed me, because I realize that Anne is called to be a literary critic, and I am not. The reason why I didn’t write a thesis in the English department, the reason why she has Stephen Greenblatt as her advisor and I didn’t, is that she is a critic and I am an artist. I wanted to do a thesis in the Government department and the English department simultaneously. But I didn’t have the energy to make my way through the brambles of the system to do that. So I didn’t do a thesis – I went traveling instead. You have no idea how freeing it is to realize that Harvard’s prizes are not meant for me. In all honesty in terms of fit, I should have gone to Yale. But Thank God I didn’t, for if I had, I would never have met the Ichthus!
But let’s get back to Samir. We missed him. God loves him. We longed to see him at the final Ichthus pub night. But other things happened at that final pub night. George Thampy came, after lurking for a long while and being Samir’s roommate. He offered to help us with our financial model. Nico said he should post a blog post first, and he has. George started up the Ichthus Summer Reading List. For once, my unbridled enthusiasm paid off, and I listed 20 books, still counting. We got onto the spreadsheet with Jordan and started chatting, for all the world like a late 90s chatroom.
During senior week, George floated the idea of greeting the sun along the Charles River for the last morning of our career as Harvard students. I only got the memo at the end of the day before it was going to happen, but it occurred to me we should make it a liturgy. So I wrote a liturgy. I was inspired by my time at the Chaplaincy and also by Anne, who prepared liturgies for us in the early days of Samir’s guard of the Ichthus. I told George to print out copies. He had set the time for 5 A.M. the next morning. I hoped with all my heart Samir would come. At 4:30 in the morning the following day, I put the finishing touches on the liturgy and walked down to the Charles River. No Samir. No George. I walked around, shrugged, sat down for a bit of quiet time alone. I sat around for one and a half hours. No Samir. No George. I thought I saw some guys on the bridge, and yelled “Samir!” at them. “George?” Nope, I just embarrassed myself. At about 6:30 A.M. I decided I would walk back to the Quad and get my cellphone which I had forgotten.
Then it occurred to me that Mather is actually closer to me than the Quad. I shrugged, and walked to Mather instead. They’re probably sleeping, I reasoned. If they’re not going to be woken up by a promise to meet me at 5 A.M., they’re not going to be woken up by a cellphone. I was right. When I got to the Lion’s Den, no one was stirring inside. I was a bit pissed, but determined to wake them. I stood at the door and knocked. And knocked. And knocked. For 10 minutes. I sighed, went off to find the Mather computer lab. I stalked George on the Harvard College facebook to make sure I got the right room. I went back. It was the right room. I knocked and knocked and knocked. For 20 minutes. I started to kick the door. You know how the Bible says that if a friend stands at the door and knocks and knocks and knocks and won’t go away, they will not be turned away? Well, this isn’t apparently always true. I felt like I was trying to wake the dead. Actually, kicking doors at 6 in the morning is a very invigorating activity, and I wasn’t so much angry as determined. Actually I don’t think I was angry at all, just a bit exasperated. Then I thought to myself, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus would walk through the bloody door, I thought. Then I tried the handle. It was open.
The common room was empty. They were sleeping in the pods downstairs. I need to find George, I thought. I went into the first room. It was someone else. I hurried out. I found George’s room, and yelled at him, “GEORGE THAMPY!!!”. He scrambled to his feet and I said I’d wait for him in the common room. Five minutes later he creeps up looking apologetic. I told him I’ll wait, since the marginal amount of time I will spend waiting is, well, marginal compared to the whole amount of time I’ve been waiting, and anyway I had a book. So he went and took a shower. When he had showered he came up and I said, “Should we wake Samir?” He looked uncertain.
We decided to leave a note on his head. I suggested drawing a moustache on him, but George thought it was a bad idea. We left a note on his head – “Jesus bids you to come to the river. Now. – Love, George and Judith”. Then we went to the river. And we had the liturgy. No Samir, but it was good. Then Commencement and all that craziness happened. I decided I had to weave a wreath for Samir, to tell him that God loves him, and he has been faithful and good to me and to others. I know how to make jewelry – that was my business in Singapore. So I ran out to get some wire.
On the night of commencement, I was grazing my bunny in the Currier courtyard. George had said he’d come to Currier when all the craziness was over. I’ll get George to bring Samir the wreath, I thought. I called George. George was tired. He is class marshal, so he must have had a crazy couple of weeks. “Don’t sleep,” I said. “Come.” It took a little persuasion – well, actually, it took a lot of persuasion, and the fact that I was inexplicably locked out in the courtyard and no one could hear me because my swipe access stopped working, and I couldn’t open the bloody door myself, and George was concerned I would freeze to death or something if I didn’t get back into Currier. I really wasn’t actually cold and was quite happy to stay out there, but George came and took the wreath.
I know Samir got the wreath. But I also want to make sure Samir gets this letter. Samir, you are the beloved son of God. You have given your best, and it has stood the test, and come out as gold. I know you may feel uncertain about your future, but you have blessed me and I want to bless you back. You gave me my vocation. If not for you and the Ichthus, my art would have died. I would not still be making art, not to say the sort of art that God has possibly planned for me. You are an amazing person, born to lead and to talk to people about God and to get other people to talk about God. You draw out the best in people, you encourage and admonish them. You already have vocation. You are a teacher, an inspirer, a reader, a writer, a builder, a computer programmer who made us this beautiful website, and you really brought the Ichthus back from the brink of death. You are passionate about Truth and Beauty, and you truly live up to the motto of this fair University. And you have wonderful, sacramental beards. You were and are our leader. Lead us! The Gutenberg Bible, the book that sits in the centre of Harvard University, was open to Ruth the day of our graduation. Though I come from another place, though I come from all over the world, your people will be my people, for your God is already my God. We will miss you as you go out into the world, but we know that God has even greater things planned for you. But keep in touch, and abide with us!
I remember, on that very cold morning in New Hampshire, that the Ichthus staff had met and were arguing about one of Samir’s ideas – whether or not to make our next issue a themed issue. Samir wanted it to be themed. I was worried that may be too ambitious, and also just a tiny bit resentful that it meant my feature on Dostoyevsky would be postponed again. I confessed both these things. But we prayed over it. And then we hugged it out, and walked out on the lake. It was a crisp, gorgeous day. The lake was frozen over, and we group hugged one another and walked out. We walked out on water – on the frozen water – following Jesus’ lead. We have problems. We have some pretty debilitating problems, because we are all fallen people. But with God, all things are possible. It turned out that Samir was right, on this occasion – we turned out a wonderful and important issue on War. And Samir was also right about this blog. He was ambitious. “We should try to post every weekday,” he said. I thought at the time this was also overreaching. But the results speak for themselves. We now have more writers than the days of the week. One day we will walk on living water, water that flows beneath us, just as Peter did when he fixed his eyes on Jesus. And though he sank when he looked down at the waves, Jesus was there, and Jesus pulled him up. And Jesus said of Peter, on this rock I will build my church.
All actions done in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ have delightful, unexpected, unintended consequences. Let every false word be admonished and thrown out into Hell Forever, and let every True Word raise itself and be heard. VERITAS CHRISTO ET ECCLESIAE. Praise the LORD!