When Saturday dawned, though I’d slept poorly from nerves, I was honestly more anxious and emotional about my friends’ graduations than my own. I was proud of them, and excited for them, and a little bit sad, but my own arrival at this academic pinnacle didn’t quite seem real. I got up early to see the Southern Belle and the Commodore (who carried the gonfalon!) at the 8 a.m. ceremony. I teared up several times, and I clapped and cheered wildly when my two best friends walked across the stage to receive their diploma
covers, and I took many blurry, zoomed-in pictures from my faraway seat because I was determined to capture the moment.
I met up with the Engineer and his family, who were in town for his brother’s graduation (having earned a master’s degree) at the next ceremony. I walked back to my apartment in the sun, meeting soon-to-be graduates in their regalia going the other way, and I still couldn’t quite think, “Me too. I’m graduating.”
For most of the day, Bird and I read quietly at my apartment, with brief flurries of activity when the Commodore’s and my own family descended for visits and hellos between events. Rather than wrapping my head around my own reality, I escaped into the adventures of The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (highly recommended, by the way).
Then it was time to start getting ready. Rented gown, a stolen stole (borrowed from the Commodore, signifying that I had studied abroad; I didn’t get my own because I never bothered to get my Fancy Summer Institute in Nottingham credits transferred to my own university), honors cords for my major, honors cords for a national honors society, a medallion from the Honors college, and the rented yoke. Cap pinned in place (I had finally decided on a C.S. Lewis quote the day before – appropriately, the Commodore’s hat featured a J.R.R. Tolkien quote…in Elvish). Tassel draped to the right.
Dad drove us to the coliseum and dropped us off, where I headed in through the behind-the-scenes passageway because I was carrying the Honors gonfalon. What exactly is a gonfalon, you may ask? Basically, it’s a banner. A flag.
The standard behind which I will amass my armies as we ride forth into battle. By virtue of my carrying this 10-foot-tall piece of fabric on a stick, my family was seated in the VIP section. Bird, Mom, and my cousin all took pictures when they spotted me standing in the back. I looked around the coliseum, all decked out in university colors, and took pictures with the deans in their regalia as my co-gonfalonier and I stood next to our banners.
When the band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the Engineer caught my eye and made a swimming turtle with his hands. “My turtle swims sideways, your turtle swims upside down…” were the lyrics he and his brothers sang to the graduation march. Naturally it was stuck in my head all day.
Once all the other graduates had filed in, we hoisted the gonfalons overhead and strode down the center aisle. I had expected, seeing as it was the whole College of Arts and Sciences graduating, that I would barely know anyone in the graduating class. Instead, my friends and coworkers shouted out to me as I walked by with the gonfalon. They made me smile, a realer smile than the one I had directed at the cameras lining the aisle.
The ceremony proceeded apace, with speakers and applause and occasional technical difficulties. We gonfaloniers stood to be recognized and tried not to smile too awkwardly while the cameras stayed on us. Eventually, an usher pulled us out of the front row to join our respective groups, and I squeezed in between two of my friends from English.
Had my picture taken with the prop diploma cover. Handed my name card to the announcer. Smiled into the camera as he said my (thankfully phonetically simple) name. Walked forward. Shook with my right hand, took the diploma cover with the left. Walked across to the center. Shook hands with the university president, who wished me luck. Slipped out of the receiving line to return to my front row seat. Smiled and posed for the Commodore, who had gotten a great seat and was snapping pictures.
When I got back to my seat, I held the diploma cover in my lap. Never mind that it was empty, that I will get the real thing in the mail a few weeks from now. All of a sudden it hit me. College was over. I did the Thing, the Accomplishment toward which roughly three quarters of my life had been aimed. It was finished. All done.
When I took this picture, I stepped up onto a cement barrier (in heels, no less). Looking out over the campus, I had no visual cues to reassure me. It seemed as though I were at the immediate edge of a cliff, even though the drop to the flowerbed below was no more than a foot and a half. Logically, I knew I was safe. Irrationally, I felt like I was about to fall.
But for a moment, buried in the jolt of fear, it was exhilarating.
This feeling returned as I looked down at the crimson rectangle in my hands. But I couldn’t cry, not really, not in the front row, not as several hundred others made their way across the stage. So I smiled, blinked away the welling emotions, and looked around for the friends I knew would be coming up in line.
Stood back up. Moved the tassel. Cheered as the confetti rained down. Slipped a few pieces into the diploma cover, hoping my bittersweet tears wouldn’t dissolve it later.
I’m having the hardest time deciding what quote to put on my graduation cap. It’s the only part of the regalia I get to keep, the tassel and the mortarboard, so I figured why not personalize it a little? The Commodore has a LOTR quote (in Elvish because she is awesome) and the White Tree of Gondor, and the Southern Belle decorated hers in a nod to her future grad school. I’ve seen Disney themes, puns on student debt, gaming metaphors, etc.
I looked up C.S. Lewis quotes and found “There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” But that kind of sounds like college sucked and I’m happy to be leaving, and that’s not my attitude.
Then there’s an Augustus Waters quote from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: “You are going to live a good and long life filled with great and terrible moments that you cannot even imagine yet!” But that’s kind of long.
Or there’s Disney, something from Beauty and the Beast, but “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” doesn’t quite seem to fit when I’m staying in my college town for the immediate future.
I considered a lyric from Hamilton, something like “I am indomitable, I am an original” or “Write day and night like you need it to survive.” Those are still kind of obscure, though, as popular as the musical is.
Maybe a Bible verse? “God is within her; she will not fail”? Something literary, from Harry Potter or Arabian Nights?
I have so many options my friends have joked that I should just put a notebook on my cap that includes all the quotes, with the tassel for a bookmark. I feel like I’ll know the right quote when I hear/read it – but I only have 8 more days to find it!
They say you don’t have assigned seats in college, but everyone knows that’s a lie. After the second or third class of the semester, no one wants to move. The class has shifted around briefly and is now settled into a comfortable arrangement of friend groups and varying degrees of attentiveness. Why mess with it?
But she did. One day, midway through the semester, I walked into my global lit class to discover that some girl was in my seat.
I didn’t even know she was in the class, meaning she’d been in the back up until that day. She glanced up to meet my glare, then quickly looked back down at her phone. My friends had all moved down one seat in the row so there was still space for me, but as I slid into place, J. leaned over and hissed, “I don’t like this.”
“This angle is throwing me off,” A. agreed, nodding at the whiteboard. Even the subtle shift of a few inches to the right had thrown off our entire groove for the class.
Now, I realize this sounds somewhat petty. We are, after all, voting adults. Can we not just take Elsa’s advice and let it go? It’s just a chair.
Well, I got to the next class ridiculously early
to reclaim my rightful place, so I sat in my normal spot. When Miss Seat Stealer waltzed in, she did a double take, glared at me, then slid into the seat next to mine with a stage whispered, “I guess I’ll just have to take Charlotte’s seat,” to her friend, who shrugged and sat down without complaint.
So I’m not the only childish one in this tale.
I’m a creature of habit. The uncertain hovering on the edge of a classroom, wondering which row to sit in and which friends will be within reach for in-class discussion, should be reserved for the first, maybe the second, week of classes. We’re all outsiders for those first couple of days, until the class gels. After that, it’s a domino effect: if one person moves, the person whose seat was stolen must now occupy someone else’s seat, displacing yet another person to someone else’s chosen spot, and so on until the whole class feels as awkward and uncomfortable as the first day they walked in. Each person temporarily becomes an outsider again as they wonder where on earth to sit. And we are too far into the semester to justify that feeling!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to class a little early. That seat is mine.
Senioritis has hit many of us hard. It’s difficult to continue caring about homework and exams when you’re steeling yourself for a Major Life Change.
The Southern Belle is leaving, heading back across the country for grad school.
The Commodore is leaving too, for Colorado and her own advanced degree.
The Engineer and I are staying here, in our little college town, until he graduates (yay, switching majors and having to go back and take a bunch of prerequisites), but this is only a year-long reprieve until we also leave, and a year suddenly seems very short.
Graduation is supposed to be the end, the part where nostalgic music plays as the credits roll and you are led to believe that everyone lives happily ever after, immediately and effortlessly finding themselves in the job they were always meant to do, meeting the right guy/girl. That’s how it’s marketed to us. College wants us to go out there and make it look good, so we’re supposed to focus on all the Magical Opportunities that await us as we start the Rest of Our Lives.
Except this isn’t necessarily the Rest of Our Lives. It’s just another stage.
The Southern Belle and I were talking about this, about moving and making decisions and planning ahead while knowing that any number of things could change those plans. She said it’s going to take courage. She said doesn’t know if she has that courage.
“I don’t think you have courage going into something,” I said. “I don’t think anyone honestly looks at the Big Scary Thing in front of them and consciously decides to flip some switch and just have courage. I think courage is finding yourself in the middle of it and going, ‘Well, fuck.’ And you just plow ahead anyway.”
We have 23 days left until graduation.
I’m sure the bus driver thought we were crazy.
The Commodore and I, mere freshmen at the time, had grown tired of dining hall fare and decided to take advantage of the communal kitchen in our dorm. We weren’t too ambitious – something as simple as pasta and Parmesan would have made us happy. But neither of us had any ingredients, and the small convenience-store-like market downstairs didn’t stock much beyond dental floss, Snapple, and crackers. So we needed to go grocery shopping.
We didn’t have a car, either.
So we decided to take the bus.
We boarded the bus early in the evening, joining a handful of grad students who lived off campus and the few fellow dorm-dwellers who were venturing outside university-owned territory. We wanted to be back for youth group at 8:00, so we figured we had allowed plenty of time. The Commodore, better versed in the bus routes than I, showed me the loop we would be taking on the map. Our chosen bus ran through the part of town affectionately known as Apartment Land (where we now live), then through campus to the downtown area where Safeway awaited. It would be a while, but it was better than walking.
Eventually, as another batch of upperclassmen got off to trudge toward their respective apartment complexes, I asked which bus we would take to get back. The Commodore flipped through the bus schedule while I mused aloud about the weirdness of boarding public transportation with bags of groceries at our feet.
“I’m sure we’re not the only students to do it,” the Commodore said, scanning the page. “This is a college town. Plenty of people probably don’t have cars.” She pointed to a colored route on the map. “This is the one we’ll take back.”
“OK. How often does it come? Is this going to be a super speedy shopping trip, or do we have time for Starbucks?”
“Ummm…” She ran a finger down the column of ETAs for each stop. “Uh oh.”
As it turned out, we were on a daytime bus that was making its last loop of the day. The night schedule wouldn’t start until 9:00 pm – an hour after youth group – and it wouldn’t get to Safeway until almost 10:00 – an hour after the store closed.
So we sat and we rode the bus all the way through its loop back to our dorm. The driver gave us a puzzled look when we stayed on all the way through town, even when he had to stop at the transit center for almost 20 minutes. By the time we got back to our dorm, we were the last people on the bus. Stepping off, we smiled and thanked the driver, who just sort of squinted at us before driving away. We ended up with no groceries, no dinner, and not going to youth group either!
I was thinking about this adventure while riding the bus home last week. I truly hate the crowded nature of bus travel, so I’ve learned to time my rides home, waiting until about 20 minutes after classes let out and the swirling mass of people leaving campus has ebbed. I have the bus tracker that allows me to get to the stop right on time, and I know exactly which routes to take depending on which building I’m coming from.
This is a far cry from our unexpected full-circle ride freshman year.
College, of course, is about much more than learning to navigate public transit and plan your grocery shopping trips better. But it’s those unexpected parts of my college education that have arguably helped me grow the most.
PS – this is my 100th post on this blog! Which is strange to think of. When I started, I figured it would be a once-a-week thing that might trail off into oblivion once I got bored, but instead it’s been a way for me to chronicle and process my thoughts, as well as keep up my (admittedly sporadic) writing habit.
Thank you to everyone who finds reading about my life to be entertaining – I hope you enjoy what you find here.
When my professor called on me, I couldn’t contain an inarticulate growl before proceeding with my response to his question.
“Wow,” he said. “The rage is strong with you today.”
It was indeed. We were discussing the two doctors who “treat” Septimus Warren Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and which of the two was worse/more destructive in his treatment of PTSD. If you never read Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus is a character suffering from “shell shock” – hearing voices, seeing his dead friends, believing himself the recipient of a grand message from the universe, and feeling suicidal in the aftermath of serving in WWI. The first doctor, Holmes, literally pushes Septimus’s wife, and therefore her worries for her husband, aside in order to lecture Septimus about how there is nothing at all the matter with him and how he should just get a hobby and go outside more. The second, Sir William, agrees that Septimus is ill, but his focus is on normalization – that is, getting Septimus back to being a Contributing Member of Society, Back to Normal, and if he can’t do that, then letting him stay in an asylum rather than burden society any longer.
These two delightful characters undoubtedly spring from Woolf’s own experiences with medical professionals while struggling with manic depression. And even though Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, these doctors are still representative of social reactions to mental illness.
Setting my rage aside for moment (difficult as that is), I can understand the outside perspective. It’s difficult to “believe in” an affliction we can’t see. It’s not like a broken leg or a bleeding wound – there’s nothing visibly wrong, so a tiny doubt wriggles its way in. He seemed fine two weeks ago. Is she really that sick if she’s still getting all her work done? He’s always been so reasonable – is he really thinking of suicide? We base our assumptions on what we’ve seen and known of people up to this point, and sometimes it’s difficult to overcome that desire for them to “prove” that they’re “really sick.” Similarly, I can see why, once we realize that something really is wrong, we want our friend/family member/classmate to Get Well Soon. We want them Back to Normal, because isn’t that what they’re supposed to want too? Our society often views healing as a process with an end point, a time in the future when the sick person will have Gotten Over It, whether It is a cold or the flu or the death of a loved one. Of course, we are not completely callous. We know that some things take longer to heal from than others. But we’re still envisioning an end point rather than the possibility of “living with” the thing. “Living with” seems to suggest an uneasy compromise, which we don’t like, because there’s the underlying possibility of another upset where the Bad Thing takes over, and of course we don’t want to see this person go through that again.
So I can understand these viewpoints.
But people who hold these views usually cannot understand me.
Both Holmes and Sir William fail to recognize and validate the reality of mental illness. Yes, it’s difficult to “see” sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the person is making it up. Visibility does not equal proof. And, while there are sadly a few individuals who do make things up to get attention, why should that be our default assumption?
As for the push to Get Better Soon, while it usually comes from a place of genuine care and concern, it forces the sufferer to “take responsibility” for their illness – a problem that is actually beyond their control. It may make the person feel as though the longer they take to get Back to Normal, the more irritated or fed up their support system will get. Believing that the people around you think you should be over something makes you question yourself and begin devaluing the reality of your experience. Also, prioritizing Back to Normal-ness denies a major fact of mental illness: it doesn’t always go away. Balance can be achieved. Strategies can be developed. But when there is something chemically awry in a person’s brain, it can’t always magically be fixed. So in that case, “living with” it instead of being crushed by it is actually a victory.
We have progressed significantly since the days of Septimus Warren Smith and his two horrible, horrible doctors. But there is still room for improvement and understanding.
Sorry about the radio silence lately, but my undergraduate thesis is due tomorrow so I’ve spent the past few weeks alternately crying, tearing my hair out, complaining
a lot to the Engineer (he is a saint and a far better human being than I deserve in my stress spirals), and occasionally hitting a great writing streak and slamming out a dozen pages at once. At the moment, I’m trying to write my precis (basically an abstract, but I can’t use any “jargon,” which I didn’t realize was a thing that happened when you’re just talking about storytelling, but apparently it is) and then format my final draft.
And then I turn it in.
So anyway, once that’s turned in and I give my presentation in 2 weeks, I’ll have more brain space to write blog posts, so there will be a regular(ish) schedule again after that.
Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love
At Starbucks, it’s a skinny vanilla latte (unless it’s fall, in which case it’s a chestnut praline latte, or a skinny peppermint mocha at Christmastime).
At Zoe’s, our local coffeehouse where I spent so much time that occasionally I got free coffee, it’s a dirty chai latte (two shots of espresso if I’m having a rough day).
At the coffee cart in the Hospitality Business Management building, it’s a hazelnut lavender latte (trust me, it’s divine).
At the shop downstairs in the student union, it’s a Thin Mint Mocha (or a London Fog if I’ve been stressing out and my stomach is in knots).
And at home, it’s my just-right combination of Italian Sweet Creme and Gevalia dark roast in one of my mugs from England or New Orleans or Chicago or wherever.
I love my coffee. I’m definitely addicted – I get withdrawal headaches, not to mention extremely irritable and rather fatigued, whenever I accidentally decrease my intake. And I know I probably spend too much on it – I attained Gold Status in my Starbucks membership without even trying. The Engineer doesn’t even drink coffee, nor does he know most of my drink orders at any of the above places (which isn’t his fault, since if I’m in the mood where I need coffee now I’m probably being rather antisocial).
But I figure there are worse things I could be addicted to. And besides the energy boost, it’s kind of a security blanket. When everything in my day is going wrong, or I need the mental fortitude to face a scary Monday, one sip of coffee comforts everything. As I told my counselor a few semesters ago, no matter what else happens, nothing can ruin coffee. It’s happiness in a mug.
I might have done something dumb. Or I might be getting the hang of self care. The line between the two, at least for me, is occasionally hazy.
The email came from out of the blue, with Congratulations! in the subject line next to the name of the University Lit Journal. I’ve been published in this journal before (2 stories in one issue, actually), and submitted to it multiple times…but not this past semester. I hadn’t had time to work on anything I felt confident submitting.
Confused, I clicked.
They had accepted my piece for publication, pending revisions, and needed a bio and headshot of me by Friday. I didn’t recognize the title of the piece they mentioned, but the girl who had emailed me knew me from previous classes and one of my other friends was the managing editor, so it probably wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. I texted Editor Friend.
“Um, it’s the piece you wrote for Professor C’s class,” he said. “Last spring? Here, I’ll email it to you.”
Vague memory dawned. It was a creative nonfiction piece about my time abroad the summer before, but I was thoroughly “meh” about how it turned out. Professor C, though, loved it. He had encouraged me to submit it to University Lit Journal and, when I wasn’t sure, asked if he could at least use it as an example for his creative nonfiction editors. I said that was fine, and maybe I would revise and submit it for publication eventually. I never got around to it – had forgotten all about it, actually.
And now University Lit Journal was offering to publish it.
I remember how it felt getting the email saying that not one but both of my previous (fiction) pieces had been accepted. I was exhilarated. Over the moon. Skipping down the sidewalk (well, I do that anyway because I’m basically a 5-year-old pretending to be a college student, but you get the picture). The meeting with the editors to go over revisions was one of the best workshopping experiences I have ever had, and I was truly proud of the product when it came out in print.
This time around, all I felt was panic.
I did not have time budgeted for this. I did not have a spare hour to meet with the editors again, much less several afternoons to devote to revising the piece to a point where I would be happy to see it in print (again, this was not my favorite thing I’ve ever written, and though when I reread it I could see some potential, it would take a while). And I had no desire to carve out that time. I didn’t want to rush to a meeting where my own writing would make me feel harried and inconvenienced. I didn’t want to spend energy that I needed for class, work, thesis, feeding myself. I didn’t want to pick up a project that someone else had started on my behalf.
“How much would you hate me if I said no?” I texted Editor Friend.
Some people might think I’m crazy for retracting my piece. “How much time could it really have taken?” they might cry. “You should have jumped at the chance to get published again! I’m sure if they wanted to print the story it would have been fine no matter how you felt about it.” And maybe, being a young almost-graduate who’s hoping to get an entire book published eventually, I should have been grateful for the chance to have another printed piece on my resume.
But I just wasn’t. And I have enough of a sense of ownership of my writing that I wanted to be excited if I was going to have something printed. I didn’t want it to feel – well, like this.
So I retracted my “submission” and immediately breathed a sigh of relief. Now I could focus on the stuff I want to write – like my thesis, my manuscript, and this blog. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for my resume, but it was what I needed to do for myself right now. And I’m okay with that.