On Living in the Moment While the Moment Is Hot
I have a confession to make: I blew off my high school graduation. Something about the transitory nature of the moment made me feel more afraid than celebratory, so I tried to get away with not doing it at all. I was conveniently sick the day we got fitted for caps and gowns, and conveniently sick again the day we were supposed to pick them up. The roiling in my stomach and a headache from crying did, to be fair, render me actually sick, but most of me was just afraid to face the future. High school wasn’t particularly good to me, but it was what I had known for four years, and the thought of moving on without my friends, without the teachers who looked out for me on the day-to-day, seemed incomprehensible. I tried to get away with not walking, but of course my family wouldn’t have any of that, so I grudgingly went and tried on special graduation clothes, planned my own sober grad night for all the kids who couldn’t afford the real one, or else didn’t want to go to it, auditioned for the valedictorian speech, and pretended that it wasn’t happening to me. When they called my name to walk across the stage, I cried. I smiled too, but I continued crying as we tossed our caps. And graduation passed. And I was fine, adjusting way better than I thought I would to my next move.
I wish I could say that I shaped up for my college graduation and met the day with dignity, knowing that I had done a good job. Strangely, as resistant as I had been to high school graduation, I was even more so when it came to the much bigger college ceremony. I did the whole routine over again, the clothes, applying yet again to give the speech (why do I do this to myself), and generally readying myself for the day.
Everything was different this time; less of the uncertainty peculiar to my high school graduation abounded. The Fall Semester of my last year of college, I got called in to a meeting with my counselor. “Surprise!” they said, “You’re ready to graduate!” I had already chosen my Spring Semester classes and made plans with friends to do everything college-related that I had taken for granted, in an attempt to end senior year with a bang. Who was this counselor to tell me when I was ready to graduate? But the units didn’t lie, and I couldn’t afford to spend a whole semester taking classes I didn’t need. My family graciously celebrated me in a small “graduation” lunch to underscore the achievement of making it out in 3.5 short, short years. We did an escape room to commemorate my escape from the Ivory Tower, and finished with hard cider and bar food at one of my favourite local restaurants. That Spring, instead of going to class with my friends like I had planned, I started looking for a serious job and found one quickly working at a group home for troubled boys.
By the time the actual day of graduation rolled around months later, I felt out of touch with it all. I had been begging my friends to let me help write their essays just so I could stay connected, but working at the group home and taking care of my new dog were time consuming adult endeavors that didn’t seem to match with what my friends were doing. Moreover, I loved my job, and taking three days off for graduation and the requisite after-parties would take me away from that.
I greeted the day with the same attitude I had in high school. Hello, graduation, I’ve been expecting you.
After crying in my apartment while getting ready, my neighbour and best friend at the time drove us to campus (it was across the street, but who wants to walk in a cap and gown). We chugged champagne in the parking lot and then spent hours sitting in sticky, sweaty rows under the Valley sun waiting for thousands of students to cross the stage. I cried when we walked into the amphitheater to pomp and circumstance, and my favourite professor shouted my name as I walked by, a messy bundle of golden hair and flailing black robes. My moment was brief, and I was flanked on either side by my ex and one of my other friends from the English Department. We didn’t toss our caps like the children we were four years earlier, but I cried melancholy tears as I moved my tassel over. Four hours later, with a gown soaked in sweat, I joined my family on the grassy knoll for more champagne. At the party the next day, even my professors and their families showed up to celebrate. And graduation passed. And once again, I was fine.
Flash forward two years. I am about to finish my Master’s Degree in English. Unlike the undergraduate degree that my parents handed to me, I have paid for this one myself. Moving away from my hometown was one of the hardest things I have ever done. In fact, these two years have probably been the most difficult of my life, which is crazy coming from someone who thought they hit rock bottom in 2017 (but that’s a different story). I moved to a completely new place where I had no friends. Went through the wringer with a series of crazy awful roommates. Suffered plenty of heartbreak and homesickness. Had to get rid of my dog Othello, who I miss every single day. But with a big risk comes a big reward, and in these two years I have found some of the best friends I have ever had. I took up gardening. Learned which bars in my new town are good for an Old Fashioned and which I should steer clear of if I’m alone. Found countless weird thrift finds, spent hours breathing up the salt air of the ocean. I taught my own Special Education class. I found a career I am passionate about, delivered conferences on my own research, and got my first legitimate publishing deal. Despite the fact that my response to constant reminders that I am about to graduate has been “Don’t remind me”, I was relishing the idea of stepping onto that stage to celebrate an achievement that I am immensely proud of for so many reasons. I found myself during my time in grad school.
Enter Coronavirus. Spring Quarter is now going virtual, and commencement has been indefinitely postponed. Students were asked to return to their permanent residences and while mine is in San Luis Obispo, I have returned to my hometown to be with my family during this tumultuous time. The next time I set foot on campus might not be until my brother’s graduation next year, where I will undoubtedly mourn the loss of my own graduation. Graduation has not passed, and it will not come to pass, and I am not fine.
I feel the bitterness that is to be expected, but while it seems that our world is crumbling around me, I also feel fear. A selfish part of me is mired in the self-pity of thinking that I will not be celebrated, but this isn’t true. I will find a way to celebrate my victory regardless, but that hardly feels fair when so many people are experiencing such loss right now. Seniors in high school are losing prom. People are losing houses and jobs, and many others are losing relatives and friends to this vicious illness that has circulated the globe. If all I am losing is my chance to walk across the stage for my five minutes of fame, I must be doing alright.
What I am losing this time around reminds of the times I didn’t appreciate what I had. How many people get so many opportunities to get it right? How guilty I am of taking for granted the things that I have been blessed with until they are gone: the fleeting moments of honoring my degrees, the fact that I live near the beach, the ability to go out on the town or to hug my friends who I don’t hug nearly often enough. In the face of the growing crisis, there isn’t much more I can do than promise myself that I will be better. I don’t know how long it will be until this is over, but until then, I will appreciate every second I spend in this cramped house with my family. I will wait longingly for the day that I can hug my friends again. I will try my best to savor every moment, because the truth is that I don’t know which moments might become the best ones of my life until after they are gone. And whether or not I get to walk across the stage, graduation will pass. And this time I will be more than fine. I will be exquisite.