As a child in elementary school, I remember The Day – the last day of school – as something definitive and momentous. Weeks leading up to The Day were felt, it was in the air, these fumes of freedom, and each student’s excitement would rise accordingly as The Day drew nearer. We were intoxicated by the expectations and possibilities Summer allowed; cleaning out our desks and classrooms were chores we assumed happily, for they were symptoms of a grander reward.
With age I find the momentousness of such events has either a huge delay or has disappeared altogether. Last days of school at university were anti-climactic because everyone would go home at different times, often in the midst of a stressful finals atmosphere; most would return to incessant boredom at a job they loathed or wishing they had a job to loathe or the subtle torture of aching for their futures, and so the line separating mediocrity and momentousness was blurred. Responsible adults must heavily ponder what is next, and so the sole joy of an important moment was not enough to intoxicate. And every year, I would feel less and less that my mind was in tune with the epicness of my reality. On graduation day, in order to feel that this chapter of my life was truly over, that I had earned throwing my cap into the lumpy perch-belly sky, I had to be repeatedly hit over the head with a proverbial bat by a close friend. We walked along the White House path while Asian tourists snapped pictures of us in our black regalia, repeating how excited we were for the other, how much we believed the other would do great things. “You are the hero of your own story,” our speaker declared.
I don’t know what to make of this feeling. Am I just jaded? Am I old? Too heavy-hearted? Am I incapable of achieving that child’s brain, tiny drunks sipping on Summer, too deliriously happy to consider consequence and futures, too unabashed to sulk in the past?
With age this momentous feeling takes different forms. I didn’t grasp that he was gone. I didn’t feel like I was heading to my dad’s funeral in the Powazki Cemetery. It just felt like a taxi ride, the young driver consumed by his own thoughts as the radio whispered a generic techno beat, and I just happened to be wearing black; leaves the hues of mustard yellow whipped wrapped-up passers-by in the face, a phenomenon most autumns tend to nurture. Like all other days in all other places, I wondered where they were going.
When the coffin appeared, insulated by flowers, wreaths and signs of farewell and forevers, walking down that cathedral aisle to my front-row seat for the finale, only then was I hit with this sharp uncompromising reality. But I remember a warm happiness trickling down my spine; I was happy to be feeling something so definitive at the very moment it was supposed to be felt, like a child on her last day of school, drunkenly and vigorously cleaning out her desk. It was a thorough acceptance of reality; my mind and the world around me were in sync. But it also proved the possibility of reverting back to the days of Summer’s Eve, a time where everything carried less weight. And so I breathed easier, no matter how dark the tune.
The anticipation and follow-through of a large trip is something different. Travel has this way of being perpetually surreal, the damn magic of it all; some don’t even accept that the whole thing’s happened until they’re sitting on their asses back at home with the computer’s glow on their solemn faces, browsing pictures and indulging regrets. The nostalgia feels all the stranger – how can we long for a time that we never felt actually occurred?
You’re caught straddling two worlds: one where clocks are melting on tree branches, and one where you’re negotiating a price in a foreign language and having the whole transaction go south when they pick up you’re not from there, and so the lightbulb goes off and the price is tripled. The surreal and the real. The otherworldliness of travel is a mindfucker only because we’re told it’s not what we’re supposed to be doing, that we’re evading real life. Ipso facto, travel isn’t real life, and the wondrous foreign world that surrounds you is too surreal to have any weight. If it’s too good, you know.
“Is this real life?” I would squeal to my friends, Blake and Misha, as we were confronted with a mountain, a Mongolian sun, and fried meat dumplings waiting for us at the bottom. They would always say no.
Only now do I realize that this disbelief, this outright rejection of a collective reality, was just a covert form of resonating gratitude. I was in truth asking, “Can our lives be any better than this?” And we would all think, no. No. There is nothing more to add or take away from our small lives and from our small moment, leave us be, we are happy. In this was always the implicit agreement that it was real.
That’s the trade off, I think. I no longer feel the last day of school, in all its explicit glory, but I feel this peace in my bones and this lightness of possibility, and this resounding real happiness that children don’t yet know they should be envious about, and it’s the peace of knowing it can’t be any better than this.∗