Graduation—so that was graduation. Took some photos, listened to some speeches, constantly worried about my sash falling off, and shook some guy I’d never heard of’s hand. And now I’m done, and what, now I’m an adult?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’d certainly heard that graduation was nothing but a series of lines while you wait for your 25 K (plus) piece of paper, so I can’t say I’m exactly disappointed. Maybe the word’s underwhelmed. Or maybe I was looking for some kind of answer from the institution—some kind of ‘this is it, you’ve made it.’ Oh sure, they said that a million times over on the day of, but I didn’t quite believe it this time. And maybe the maturity is the recognition that I still haven’t made anything, that the real work’s just beginning. It left me with the feeling that nothing’s made, but everything’s over.
Oddly enough, it reminds me of my completely unrelated blog post last week: how Mad Men’s season finale was really nothing like the core of the show itself, not when it tries to tie everything together in such a simple straight-forward way. Because nothing about these past four years has been particularly simple, and no platitude about doors opening and world-oysters can change that.
And that’s something I’m intensely grateful for. Graduating from St. Paul’s was perfect—mainly because I hated that school and was already counting down the days till I could leave. Back then, everything fit together in a nice box, considering everyone I was starting with was now everyone I was finishing with, and we went through all the same prom-date night-to-remember cycles every other Winnipeg high school did. Most of all, four years really wasn’t all that long a time. This time round, I look back to Sept 2011 and I can’t even remember that anymore. This time round, four years is a lifetime ago.
A couple lifetimes ago, probably. Wandering through campus on my way to the ceremony, I realized it wasn’t ever a question of what I was doing or how I was doing it, but who I was when I was doing it. Every night we’d jumped the Nitobe Fence to drink; every morning sprint across campus when I lived out by Totem; every evening I made time to watch a sunset from the cliffs—it’s changed me in so many subtle and obvious ways, so many split ends and finished pathways. As I walked past Totem Park, Main Mall, Buchanan, two feelings collided: the overwhelming sense of all the different people I’ve been on this campus and all the ways UBC made those people, against the realization that that time has already finished, and that it no longer impacts me in the same way. And in the face of all the giddiness, excitement, stress and despair I was numb on that final day. If graduation is the conclusion, it’s certainly an anticlimactic one.
So what can this paper give me? Is it wrong to resent it at least a little bit, these platitudes UBC is shoveling in by the bowlful? Lieutenant Governor Louise Guichon gave a particularly disorienting presentation, giving advice by way of bragging about her own accomplishments, saying how all these ‘doors just seemed to open.’ It wasn’t met with rousing excitement or acclaim, and should it have? Us arts students, us critical thinkers: like we believe you that any of this is going to be easy. And if it is—well, maybe it shouldn’t be.
That’s probably why Gary Cristal’s speech resonated with me the way none of the other could. Founder of the Vancouver folk fest along with a whole slew of other vital grass-roots artistic events on the west coast, he came to the podium with an unzipped gown and hair which flew in six different directions. As the only person up on that stage without a PhD, he probably told us few of the things we wanted to hear, but all that we needed to—about how deeply fucked up everything’s become, and that if our generation doesn’t try to solve at least some of those problems, they’re only going to get inconceivably worse. “If there’s one universal truth,” (and I apologize for the complete paraphrase on this), “it’s that the new generation must never take the conceived wisdom of the previous generation for granted. Never eat the bullshit they’re feeding you.” Thank God for speeches that aren’t sanctioned by the Chancellor.
That fear, that uncertainty. It’s the first time I’ve truly felt 22—which is to say something so clearly not-21, as I saw it then. I’ve never been so scared, I’ve never felt so old. So many possibilities next to so many endings, and yet everything still needs to be figured or fixed. And what fixing, what solutions?
That’s not to say I’m not excited: every time I master a new concept in Japanese, the etchings and stencil outline of that new life become more and more visible. But I’ve been excited about Japan for six months now; these here are the months devoted to being scared as hell. Because I’m not scared about what’s to come, but I’m terrified about what I’m leaving behind. Each next sunset, each next drunken revel—it’s all on a timer now, isn’t it? takes on a whole new relevance. A couple days back I dived into the Ocean the first time this year, and the first thing I thought about (blue mountains encircling me, so caught in this summer haze they melt into the sky) was Japan–rice fields and summer festivals. The result? This was the first time I’ve ever gone into the ocean and actually felt more stressed coming out than in.
Where am I gonna be this time next year? What am I doing? What am I leaving behind? Did I make the right choice? Am I making the right choice? Does the right choice exist? Will I ever be this happy again?
Did I expect graduation to answer any of these questions? No, but I would have loved a speech I would at least want to believe in. On Imagine Day in first year, our current President Stephen Toope gave us a flourishing introduction to our new home: about how we were in the happiest place in the world, how we would find our dreams here, and how anything we could ‘imagine’ (get it?) would come to fruition. In a literal way, of course it was all fantastic drivel; in its own symbolic way, he was totally right. Never in my wildest awkwardest 18-year old dreams could I have believed it all turning out like this. If it wasn’t eventually true that I ended up loving the school and these four years every bit as much as he’d promised—despite everything, despite fucking everything—then I wouldn’t be feeling this now.
And now we have Arvind Gupta as president, the guy who seemed to get scared every time he needed to turn the page to read the next part of his script. Rhetorically, they’re separated by a number of different baseball leagues (and baseball stadiums, for that matter). It would have been nice to get swept away by the fantasy one last time; swept away at the very same time that all of this is becoming a little too real (or to quote my dear friend: “So real—surreal—so real.”). Why can’t we be like those grandiose American commencements, why can’t we get a Neil Gaiman or a JK Rowling to send us off? Hell, I’d be overjoyed if cynical old Margaret Attwood gave us the nod (yeah, fuck you, U of T).
Well, as usual with UBC, I guess I’ve got to make up my own story to fill in the blanks its massive bureaucratic organs completely overlook. And in that case, I’ll just go back to the commencement speech that’ll always blow me away, the only commencement speech that’ll ever change my life: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.”
It’s a long video (one I highly recommend watching if you haven’t yet), but this part’s the important bit:
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer… Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.”
Well, I can’t really come near Wallace, so I won’t bother. But I’ve gotta remind myself of the water I’m swimming in before this all comes to a close. It’s my life to choose it, right?