As I drove around Missouri earlier this month, I was struck by how much I have missed the sky. Living in New York City, you only see the sky as a backdrop, a veiled scrim behind a clutter of tenement buildings and skyscrapers. But in the Midwest, the sky is a large blue canvas, freckled only with clouds. Driving underneath it, I was awed by how massive it can seem when unencumbered by glowing ads for soda products and clothing lines.
I was in Missouri for the weekend to witness my little sister graduate from college. “Little” is really a misnomer now. Only older siblings can fully appreciate what a surreal experience something like this can be. This is the “baby” sibling that you, if you are anything like me, teased mercilessly for years on end. Even after they get to the age where they are genuinely capable of returning a solid punch on the arm, you are still not prepared to watch them walk across a stage and collect their diploma. I was present for her first steps, and now she’s wearing high heels. I imagine this is a mild precursor to the mixture of pride and wonder I will feel as a parent, witnessing my children grow up and sighing to myself about where all the time has gone.
Since graduation is always at the end of the school year, many people forget that “commencement” actually means “beginning.” It is meant to signify the start, not the end of the things. Sitting in the gymnasium of my sister’s small school, I was reminded of my own commencement four years ago in St. Louis. I graduated from Webster University with a B.A. in film production, a dream that I had pursued relentlessly since the fifth grade. Surrounded by similar, like-minded colleagues, we sat more or less politely through the speaker’s well-meaning address, none of which I remember now. I’m sure that it was the usual commencement speak, rife with cliché and meant to encourage us in how special and unique we are; how the world is now ours for the taking and how we can do anything we set our minds to. Honestly, it’s probably for the best that I don’t remember a word of it. Because now I’ve had the benefit of discovering that life rarely, if ever, fits so neatly inside the packaged banalities of most commencement addresses.
When I was in high school, I applied to just three schools with film programs: UCLA, NYU and Webster. I didn’t have the grades for UCLA or the money for NYU. Webster was my safety, and I went promising myself that I would transfer to New York after two years. That didn’t happen, which I am thankful for because I met my beautiful fiancée, and we both made it to the Big Apple eventually anyway. I moved here in the fall of 2009 for a film production internship. It truly seemed the stuff of graduation speeches: I was in the city I’d dreamed of, pursuing the job I loved.
I pined after New York City for well over five years. But now that I’m here, I find myself wishing more often than not that I could move back. Not just because I miss the sky, but because I miss little things, like driving, and big things, like being so close to my family. Wide open corn fields, once endlessly boring, now seem freeing. The smallness of things and the slowness of life, once patently maddening, now feels idyllic. What’s more, I no longer feel that the degree that I worked so hard for is at all what I want to do with my life. This is more than just a “grass is always greener” mentality. This is a bona fide crisis of identity. Why didn’t my commencement speaker prepare me for this?
This was why, as proud as I was of my sister, I was also worried for her. I worried that her commencement address would do the same thing to her mine had done to me – to reinforce the notion that a liberal arts education automatically opens every door for you, gives you all the answers, makes things easier. I love my sister, and I want the best for her, and of course I want to encourage her to dream big and reach for the stars – all that cheesy, clichéd stuff. But I also want her to know the truth: that life is really, really hard, and full of disappointments, and more often than not does not turn out at all like we expect.
And more than anything else, I want her to know that that’s okay.