Saturday, June 8, 2013

Graduation Day

Graduating happens this way: slowly, like a small bird picking away at the inner parts of shell. It moves clumsily - it is the first time it has ever sought this form of freedom. Until this moment, life just meant existing in pure, exquisite balance, a place of being and non-being, soul tucked away safely inside of a shell that was warm and happy and home and love and all things good and right with the world.

Then that world, without warning, became too small. The bird couldn't breathe. There was no choice; the shell cracked, was chipped away at; broken. Light came in, and then fresh air and cool breezes. The senses were flooded all at once. Though life had actually begins some time before, it is the moment the bird escapes the shell that we'll call birth.

“My mom made me collect those Care Bears,” my son says to an acquaintance, explaining the bucket of stuffed animals under his bed and disregarding – with one sentence – all those years and months and days and hours we spent playing with those stuffed bears, reading about them, and watching Care Bear movies. They grow up this fast, the children we love. Or at least it seems this way. It’s only later we find out that growing up is a much more grueling process. Maturity comes along at a different point in time for everyone. I thought I was grown at 16, when I became engaged to the then-love-of-my-life. We planned to marry when I finished college, but the cute classmate who sat beside me my first semester pretty much thwarted that plan.

This past Saturday, I watched my niece graduate from the same high school that I attended. When she was born, I was 21, there at the hospital with a new love-of-my-life, who happily made many runs to get cigarettes, drinks, and food for my family as we waited for the birth.

The 21-year-old me holding Rhiannon
Two years earlier, my sister’s first child had died at 7 weeks of age. My mother’s first child was stillborn, as was my grandmother’s. In my family, birth seems to ride in with death alongside. My brother died the day after his daughter was born. In silence, we ate, drank, and smoked, because back then, it was still allowed on hospital grounds…and we waited. We knew all too well sometimes bad things happen when you’re expecting good ones.

Fast forward eighteen years, and it’s an auditorium, not a hospital, where my family is gathered, waiting on my niece to arrive. We are not the family we were two decades ago, however. We don’t sit together because my mother is in the wheelchair section and my father has to be with her. The current contender for love-of-my-life cannot be by my side at this particular event, but my son is. Without food, drink, or cigarettes, we wait. My sister and her youngest child arrive; an aunt and a cousin show up later. But the auditorium is filling up. We end up spread out all over, my family, but still we know who's here. That means something.

Afterwards, we lose and find one another in the crowd, and I occasionally catch a glance of some familiar face from the lifetime ago that I attended high school. I don’t make small talk; there is little to say beyond hello to someone you once knew, but are a stranger to now. I push through the crowd, find my own people, and figure out the next leg of the journey, because this is a big deal, this graduation. I wonder if my niece really knows how big, but caught up in her circle of friends, I’m sure she doesn’t. It takes some living – real, actual living – to understand the definition of the word ‘graduate’. At this point in her life, school is just followed by more school. Give it a fancier name and charge ridiculous rates to attend it, but it is still school. And she has a lot more of it to go. These friends here today will fade away, new ones will take their places, and it will happen over and over again. But right now, she doesn't know that… nor does she need to. She is happy in this crowd. These friends are her people. This day marks a change in her life.

The graduation passage marks us, too. Perhaps more than the children in our worlds who are actually graduating, it is us, the adults on the sidelines, who are marked by the knowledge of how much time - the one thing no force can stop - is now behind us. There are many types of graduations. “I don’t believe in fairies anymore,” my son blurts out over dinner a few weeks ago. So I tell him tales of a dark fairy king who is big as a man and lives in the shadows, searching for wayward little boys to kidnap and create an army of darkness with. “Who will they fight?” he asks. “The forces of good,” I answer. “Who are the guardians of the good?” He's a lover of fantasy films and knows the plots of all such stories are generally the same. “The trees, the flowers, all that grows and thrives and looks towards the light," I answer.
He scoffs. “How can a tree be a guardian? It can’t move!”

“Not in the daylight,” I say, making it up as I go along. “But that’s why people sleep at night, you know. So that the guardians can do their job while it’s dark and no one will see.” I want to say, ‘Just believe sometime, don’t always look for logic,’ but I don’t, because he will seek out the rational and logical in every situation; it is his way. I want to ball up the magic that has been his childhood and hold it in my arms, never let it go, but I can’t. There were so many more stories I wanted to tell, so many more things I had planned to do make his childhood amazing, but he’s growing away from me now.

Growing away from me now...
Later, on an evening stroll, he’s debating the brand new fairy information I’ve bestowed upon him. At the edge of our road, he stops and turns to me.

“Mama, will you be mad if I tell you I still don’t believe?”

I could say anything right now, but I shake my head and give him the truth. “No. No one, not even me, has the authority to tell you what you should believe. They also do not have the right to tell you what you shouldn’t believe. Always remember that.”

He plays with the neighborhood boys as I sit outside, a cup of coffee in hand. At 21 I drank coffee in the evenings in funky coffee shops because it was hip, but nearing 40 now, I do it at home just so I can stay awake past 9pm. ‘Going to bed at granny o’clock’ my friends and I will joke when the urge to give in to sleep at the same hour we used to be heading out for the evening is just too overwhelming. A text from my niece informs me that while she has selected her college, she continues to change her mind about her major. I laugh at this announcement; I have four college degrees, and have had twice that number of full-time jobs.

I’m a thinker, prone to over-think, searching for metaphors and analogies for things in life when I should be in the moments, enjoying things in life, but there is a pencil in my mind, always scribbling down things for later, when I’ll come back to them while knitting or gardening and know I have to stop, write it down on paper, save it because it’s important, and it might help someone someday. At graduations, the talk is always abuzz with what one is going to be, planning to be, hoping to be. My niece asks me questions about this next phase, as I’m the only family member who attended a university campus, and I think long and hard about my answers. These are the kind of conversations we remember having with family, so I’m careful what I say. I want to tell her to be selective with her major, that there is a risk of burn-out when you make your passion your daily work. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way and have struggled with for the better part of a year now. The old adage rings true – what you spend all day at work doing is the last thing you want to do at home. I now move towards new passions, new hobbies, and new experiences. The shell cracks. Light seeps in.

I want to tell her that part of the point of college is not to already know what you want to do, but also to discover what new thing you might want to do. I didn’t do this. I entered college as an accounting major who dreamt of law school one day, but listened to well-meaning folks who kept imploring, “You’re too creative for that kind of work; you need to do something artistic or you’ll waste your talent.” I was 17 and had been taught to listen to my elders.

I want to tell my niece that I spent a hell of a lot of years striving to be something phenomenal, creative, outlandish, radical, famous (insert your own adjective, it’ll probably work) in my field, because deep inside I felt that just being me was not good enough. I know better now…but it took a very long time. The shell is stronger than we think. It can and will withstand being dropped a few times because it has to be opened from inside.

I want to tell her not to streamline her definitions of herself by saying “I have be this because I like it’ or ‘I need to be that because I’m good at it’. We are capable of being so, so much more than our strengths, hobbies, and interest limit us to. It’s a dangerous game to let them define us, especially so early in life.

I want to tell her that sometimes bad things will happen when you are expecting good ones; that even when your family is spread out, knowing who’s still there mean something; that no one has a right to tell you what you should and should not believe; that loves-of-your-life will come and go with the marches of time, each offering a different life, a different you, a different destiny, a different pain…but you have to try, because we are nothing but puppets without love. The intense joy of having it and the agonizing pain of losing it are the only two emotions in life that are perfectly equal in intensity, the first being impossible to attain without risking the second. Nothing shatters the shells we build around ourselves like love. It throws us off balance, yes, but it is the light that pours in and opens our senses to the wonders of the world outside of the safe, secure familiar.

Instead of saying any of this, however, I give typical, basic, bland advice, as do most adults in these situations. We mean to offer more, we really do, but we’re tired, and children, no matter the age, always seem to spring the deepest questions on us at the precise moment that our brains have shut down for the day. But maybe bland answers are what one needs at times like this. They take the pressure off, make us feel that we have lots of hours to dwell on useless metaphors and analogies; that time isn’t marching on; that we’ll never slip, but always stand tall, secure and safely in balance; that our shell will never grow too small, break, and fall away, causing us to go through birth again and again and again with our eyes closed, because we learned long ago that death can easily ride along on the same wind.

Sitting on my den floor early this Sunday morning, legs crossed, mind deep in meditation, I’m suddenly struck by the question my son asked almost 24 hours before, when we were sitting in auditorium, family all spread out around us, but still there, waiting to see my niece arrive in cap and gown.

Waiting on the big moment...
“What does it mean to graduate?”

I open my eyes slowly. For almost a year, I have been pecking at this shell, until now the final piece, that last remaining vestige of who I thought I was, falls away. I feel exposed, open, and vulnerable. I'm both lost and found.

But I remember graduating. I remember vividly who I intended to be, who I always was, before the ideas and opinions and dreams others had for and about me found their way into my life, my soul, my psyche, building me up and breaking me down simultaneously, defending their intentions with same kind of logic used by foresters to justify the destruction caused by controlled burns. It has taken time, my shadowy fairy kings were many, but my guardians have done their job. I may have broken the shell myself, but they have preserved the balance of what was inside. I grow and thrive, turning my face towards the light.

“What does it mean to graduate?”

I’m sure I gave him the dullest of answers at that moment. But in the not too distant future, when it is him in cap and gown and he no longer asks me questions because he thinks he knows all the answers, I’ll tell him that these passages mark all of us; that birth and death, even as metaphors, are bedfellows; that like me, he will spend many years making it up as he goes along, pecking away at dreams and hopes and goals because he’ll think he needs something external to validate his existence. Then one day he’ll learn that nothing shatters the illusions we build around ourselves like love. It throws us off balance, yes, but it is also the light that pours in and opens our senses to the wonders of the world outside of the safe, familiar shells we’ve been living in. It leads us out of ourselves and into the world, blinking, wondering what we’ve been doing all of this time, inside our own heads, forgetting to come out and play.

Then we feel the warmth of the sun on our faces, the way the trees seem to sway with the breeze, and the way we seem to be a perfect part of this dance just by showing up.

And we smile, knowing that finally, we’ve graduated.

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