Of course, I was excited by the prospect of walking across the stage this spring. I imagined that my friends and I would titter and joke in the stands, reminiscing and likely crying as we watched our peers rise, shake hands, and smile.
Finally, my name would be called and I'd rise to shake the hand of our university's president — it would be the best handshake of my life — while smiling toward the general direction of my mom's camera.
In that moment, I assumed, I would be in a state of emotional disarray: jittery, deeply grateful, sad, sweaty, accomplished. A degreed woman.
Even in lieu of a graduation ceremony, I still feel these things. As I drink my third cup of coffee and make the daily decision to "keep on keepin' on," a jitteriness pulses through my bones and my soul. When I try to explain this restless energy to others, they say they feel the same thing.
Perhaps this is one of the strangely beautiful outcomes of our situation: the rediscovered ability to relate to others on an energetic level, to empathize with feelings that defy words.
As I drink my coffee and write thank-you cards for my professors and mentors, I feel immensely grateful, nostalgic, and sometimes, frustratingly wordless. It can be so difficult to capture and sculpt the letters for people I've known since kindergarten, to form the meaningful words of appreciation and love I've learned from others. This is made even more difficult, of course, by the realization that these cards will not be accompanied with hugs.
This is when I begin to feel sadness.
Some nights, I am overwhelmed with sadness for the suffering that has either been initiated or unveiled by the pandemic.
I am sad for my fellow graduates, for our favorite businesses, for the quarantined extroverts, for the losses we are all experiencing: lost jobs, loved ones, sports seasons, semesters. Sadness often visits at night, when I'm less distracted.
Fear tends to hit 10 times harder after 9 pm. But as my dad used to say back when I was scared about the 2012 Mayan apocalypse: It's always better in the morning.
Morning brings the brightness of renewed potential. But that comes with nervousness that I may not use it fully or productively. And with nervousness comes sweat.
I expected a lot of sweating at graduation — a Mother's Day spent sweltering in thick robes. But sweat, that endearingly awkward product of emotional discomfort, is itself something to cherish.
Sweatiness is a symbol of completion, of accomplishment. Our culture tends to focus too much on the visual of accomplishment — the photo snapped by Mom and Dad — when accomplishment is just as much about the emotions — the mixed feelings, the jitters, the sweat, that we hide underneath our caps and gowns.
I still want us to have that moment and walk across "that" stage: the one with the university president, the diploma, and other degreed people in plush robes and warlock hats that would probably scare a small child.
But without the pressure of an audience or handshake, we can still feel the jitters, the gratitude, the sweatiness and the sadness of this graduation season. We can reflect on our own accomplishments and those of others, without feeling obligated to feel or be a certain way.
Pandemic or no-pandemic, we are entering into an unprecedented time: one of hesitant adulthood, tinges of loneliness and self-doubt, and moments of hope and restoration as new friendships and networks emerge.
Degreed, yes; "done," no. There is still so much to know, to un-know, to relearn, to hear, to feel deeply. This is a time to feel deeply, especially when expectations for emotional clarity are lowered. So allow yourself to feel the jitters, to sink into the depths of despair; but, when you're able, attempt that sweaty ascent to the heights.
I'm not entirely sure what's up there, but it may be better than the best handshake of your life. ♦