To my fellow graduates,
What can I say that isn’t a tired platitude?
I’ll start by saying that I don’t wish to end this letter on some sort of morality lesson. This isn’t the place to be didactic, and I was never good at Aesop-like conclusions, so you won’t be reading things like, “Just believe in yourself.” Or, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or, “Shoot for the moon. If you miss, at least you land among the stars,” which doesn’t make any freaking sense, because the stars are farther from us than the moon. So, none of that.
Because, for all our lives, we’ve constantly encountered these little sayings, words of comfort giftwrapped in brevity and sugarcoated in cleverness. Little aphorisms you might find in a fortune cookie, or in a song, or in history’s long and vast library of valedictorian speeches from years before. We’re all tired of that. We might not all be as bright as we’d like to be, but we’re smart enough to know that wisdom can’t simply be found in pithy, bite-sized buzz phrases. There has to be more. There has to be something else. That seems to be in everyone’s minds. So I’ll go in a different direction with this.
Off the top of my head, I can think of three instances where I felt my life shift inside of me, and all three involved rooftops. The first time was when I was 18, riding the high of a party with a good friend, listening to Arctic Monkeys’ The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala while we discussed the many ways we could be good to our then-lovers. The second time, I was 20, lying down next to a TV satellite, having a conversation about outer space and smallness with a girl I didn’t think I’d be falling for until over a year later. The third time was with a good friend, both of us sharing a cab home from an EP launch when we just decided to shoot the sh*t and talk about what it meant to commit yourself to a calling, however it made itself known. And we spoke until the witching hour, after which I walked home under streetlamps, heavy with Pilsen.
What I felt on each of those nights was a tiny shift, like my heart tilted a few millimeters inside my chest. On each of those evenings, I was in the company of a good friend, well above and looking beyond either a quiet village or a silent city, and no light save for the ones we had on in each house. I don’t know if it’s the evening or just being on elevated ground that makes people bring their walls a little bit lower and become a little bit more vulnerable. There was a kind of opening up happening. Somehow the conditions were right each time for an act of soul-bearing to take place. I’ve spent more than enough time wondering how these conditions can be recreated at will.
It was a tiny shift on those nights, but it was only until some time passed after each night when I’d feel the full weight of the pendulum swing. Time would pass, friends would take their leave for various reasons, and priorities would be shuffled top to bottom across the deck. Circumstances changed, and I suddenly found myself waking up to a world where the person I used to be no longer existed. What lessons did I learn those nights, about love and smallness and fear? And how useful those lessons would be to me now, knowing that I, and all of us, will be going down a strange world, where self-sustaining grown-ups dwell and money rules. But the longer I lived, the farther away I’d be from those memories, and going back to their lessons felt like making long-distance calls.
What does all this have to do with graduation? I see it this way: the graduation ceremony is the last and biggest goodbye we’re all going to make in our college lives. Goodbye to our teachers, to those classrooms, to those friends who’ll be working in different cities and countries. Goodbye to our parents, to an extent. And what’ll happen is, whether you’re seated or marching, crying or clapping, every goodbye you’ve ever made and every universe born out of that goodbye’s blast radius is going to flash through your mind, fast and heavy and relentless.
Maybe life is made of leavings. Maybe life has always been looking us in the eye, and it’s only when it blinks when we feel, in full force, the pressure of its gaze. Still we find ourselves in these moments, on our own dizzying rooftops, pricking up our ears for some sort of secret message the world has just been waiting to throw at us. And observe: we never find these moments on our own; they’re merely stumbled upon, wide open for us to drink deep from. I’ve found it only brings unnecessary sadness to dwell on what reasons lie behind why these moments happen. What do we do to deserve these pieces of happiness? What matters is, we know that they happen, and we take them as we come. We take them lovingly, though we are too small to determine when they leave or how long they stay. And it’s a fear of departure that forces us to cling tight. To our friends, to conversations, to nights spent leaning over the edge of the balcony, wondering what the breeze of a free-fall feels like.
Mark Strand wrote, “We all have reasons / for moving. / I move / to keep things whole.” Once the togas come off and all the tears are shed, we’ll be diving into a different world, ready to fill whatever spaces need to filled, leaving the sting of absence in people we love along the way. I’m saying: This is always the case. I’m saying: Maybe this is a good thing.
So, here’s to us. Cue diplomas and undergarments thrown up into the air. Everything’s gonna be all right. When everything turns into memories, there’s nothing else to do but make more. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’ll be making more.
P.S.: Oh, and spend more time on rooftops. That’s always a good idea.