Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Graduate

This blog has always exclusively remained a forum for my travels. I have tried to keep it as such because I know that I have too many commitments during the better part of the year to actively maintain this blog to my own high standards and the standards of the good people who indulge me by reading it. I am, for the first time, breaking my unspoken rule. This is a unique post. It's not about travel but it is about a journey of sorts. 

You see, one week ago today, I received my bachelor's degree from Northwestern University. I graduated from college.

I have tried to write this post several times. I begin to write but something always stops me. Or, more accurately, I find a way to stop me by projecting it onto some outside source. I don't want to write this blog. I don't want to say goodbye to the past four years. Because, while I may have the great fortune to stay in contact with a number of the fantastic humans I have met here, this goodbye is different. I can come back but only in pieces. I can visit the campus, I can grab coffee with professors, I can buy tickets to the many well reviewed opening nights my former classmates are sure to have. But we can't do this again. We won't go through this sort of thing ever again. Will there be many other first time adventures? Of course. Will there be unique individuals we shares those with? Gosh, I hope so. But we, this special we, we will never all start together again.

So much of life is about ritual. Over time we all develop our rituals. In college, though, there's a commonality in the ritual. There's an arch at the start of one of the pathways to Northwestern. On your first day as a freshman, or your first day as a transfer, students separate from their parents at the arch and are made to literally and symbolically walk through the arch alone: March through the Arch. We all do it. It be only one of two Northwestern rituals we all share but it is crucial because we all have the same start. The only other time we can all claim to possess such a broad common experience is graduation itself. We are together once at the beginning and once at the end. The events and the choices and the life that happens in between, that belongs individually to each of us. But, for the last time in our lives, we start where we finished: together. Togetherness of that nature is a very rare thing in our lives. I have always prided myself for my individuality---an individuality that could not be quite so specific without my time at Northwestern. Yet, at the end of it all, it's my sense of community that causes my heart to ache with memory. 

I realize that I have started many of my journeys alone. I've found people along the way, spectacular people, but a great many of my adventures have started with just me. I've walked into countries, jobs, classrooms, where the greatest difference between my companions and I was not a matter of background or passion but a differential in the starting point. For instance, I so greatly admire my friends in Bangladesh but we were in very different positions in our shared experience. Some had been there for two months, others a year, while I had been there just a day/ It doesn't seem like much but even a week's worth of time placed us at radically different points in our experience and relationship to Dhaka. Seven days after graduation and I can already begin to see the vast shifts in trajectories starting to occur. It only takes a week.

Six years ago in Beijing, when I was fifteen and abroad alone for the first time in my life, I chose to keep a blog chronicling my experiences in China. Part of the reason I did so was because I wanted to document the wonders of the world I was visiting---long before I set foot outside my own front door, I was carried to different worlds and realms through the power of the written word. I have always hoped that, in some small way, this blog has been able to do that for others. But there was another reason I wrote the blog, a far more private and selfish reason: I was so scared. Part of the reason I started and continue to contribute to this blog is because I find it much easier to come to terms with the world through writing. I have always bee much better at writing my emotions than expressing them. I may not be able to tell a person what a wondrous creature I find them to be but I can write a letter that will make the weep. It's easier to write the words than to speak them. I've always been like this. When I was growing up there was a program that used to play every saturday called One Saturday Morning. Amidst the regular line up of cartoons was a particular favorite of mine: Recess. Recess was an animated series that followed the adventures of five elementary schoolers during those precious daily 30 minutes of freedom. One of the upper clansman on the show acted as a king of the playground. My feelings about writing this blog can be summed up in a common expression he used to use (which was lifted from Yul Brynner's performance in Ten Commandments---I like a well cultured cartoon): "So let it be written, so let it be done." But that's the problem. I don't want it to be done. I have avoided writing this because it renders "it" tangible. I set the words on the page, the online page anyway, and then…it's over. 

There's a piece of literature I greatly admirer, The Women's Room by Marilyn French. In it there's a passage that speaks about the difference between life and art: "One thing that makes art different from life is that in art things have a shape; they have beginnings, middles, and endings. Whereas in life, things just drift along. In life one almost never has an emotion appropriate to an event. Either you don't know the event is occurring, or you don't know it's significance.  Art allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear." The hours after graduation feel rather strange. Here this grand, momentous things has occurred but life must still go on. We all have to go home, pack, go to dinner with our families, etc. The majesty of the moment is dwarfed by the immediacy of life. That's one of the reasons art is so vital. In art we can experience those sacred moments, we can be carried away in a manner that life outside of the theater doesn't accommodate. The moment I was most struck by the fact of my graduation was not at my own graduation but, days later, when I encountered an old friend. At the Art Institute of Chicago, I stood staring at a Van Gogh painting. I thought back to the first time his art moved me and all that has taken place in the years between that painting and this one. And then, all the nostalgia that I had by passed for my own ceremony, flooded me. A cap and gown and a speech didn't tell me I had graduated. Van Gogh did. Bookended by the enduring majesty of his work, I saw myself at the beginning and at the end of this journey. Emotions are inconvenient to life. Art is the great exception. Art is humanity's refuge. Art is where we go when we need to feel. That's why I do what I do. Because sometimes life is inconvenient. Art never is. So, if there is one thing I hope you all do it's this: go see art.  It will matter to you, I promise. 

This preciousness of this experience is only reflected in my parents' experience of it. On my father's side, I am the first Cano to graduate college. Though my mother graduated college, she attended a school where she did not belong and where she was deeply unhappy. I loved Northwestern. She couldn't wait to graduate and I am heartbroken. I can see in the reflection and pride of all those around me that this is a hallmark for celebration. But beneath this ceremonial congratulations I can't help but look across this group that has come populate and enhance my world and think: how many of you will I never see again? On a grand scale, graduation is a goodbye to the institution of college. In practice? It's a series of micro goodbyes---tiny farewells to all those individuals that have made these past four years so damn meaningful. I don't feel adequately prepared to have so many partings. I don't want people to go. I want them to stay. To please just stay. Just for a few more minutes. Just give me a few more minutes to etch you in my memory. Just a few more minutes to form the friendships I never got around to forming. Just a few more minutes to cherish friendships I have found. For all things I did and didn't do, please, I just want a few more minutes to be together. 

I have said goodbye a lot in life. We all do. But this one is the record holder. 

Sitting on the stage of the concert hall where my final graduation ceremony took place, over the sound of our speaker, was the sonorous growl of thunder, It was beginning to rain. Sitting on stage, I smiled to myself. Every important experience of my life has been accompanied by rain. Why should my graduation be any different? After the ceremony, I walked outside and was met by that familiar tumultuous gray vision, the storming sky that ushered me into this world and has accompanied all my journeys throughout it. I can't know where life will take me. Even I could, I wouldn't want to know. I can't know if people will remain, leave, or simply drift from my life. I'm sure some will do all three. But there are some things in this world I do know. I do know that I could not be the woman I am without my time at Northwestern. I do know that there is no way to ever return that debt but I hope I never stop trying. I do know that while there is art in the world there will always be a safe harbor to feel. I do know that, for that very reason, I will spend my life creating art. And I know it will always rain.

Congratulations to the Class of 2014. I couldn't be prouder. 


  1. I have always loved the written word, when I was young it was my salvation it transported me from harm and always felt like a safe haven it allowed me to explore not only my imagination but my innermost feeling. Through it I was able to open my mind my soul my heart to who I really was and what I really felt, in all the words that I have read over the years none have evrer touched me the way yours do, words are not enough to describe how I feel about you they fail to convey the true depth of those feelings. The only word that comes close is Love but even that doesn't express all that you mean to me. Pop

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