Tomorrow, both children graduate – Whit from sixth grade and Grace from eighth. At the school they’ve both been at since they were four, sixth grade and eighth grade are inflection points (the other is twelfth grade), so they each have graduation ceremonies. As you can probably imagine, I’m perpetually in tears these days and expecting an emotional day tomorrow. I did my last pickup at the gym. I packed the last lunch of my career as a mother. Etc. Etc. Etc. The lasts are coming thick and fast right now, and I’ll be honest, I’m trying to catch my breath and keep my balance.
This time of year always feels this way to me, limned with endings and loss despite its perch at the moment that my favorite season, summer, bursts into reality. I have written a lot about how this season of ends and beginnings feels for me. This year the complicated emotions are stronger than ever, with both children moving on (and in particular with Grace leaving for boarding school).
There’s something about the word, commencement, that captures all the conflicting emotions that are bound up in this moment. This moment every year, but perhaps, most of all, this moment in my life right now. Grace and Whit are, as I’ve written before, taking flight. I’m so proud I ache, but I’m also keenly aware of something big coming to an end.
So much radiance. So much sorrow. Inextricably wound together, twisted through every hour. Tomorrow, we commence. Onto the next thing, into the onrush of time, keenly aware of all that’s glorious and all that’s lost, always, at the same time.
Years ago I described the fleeting nature of time as the black hole around which my whole life circles, the wound that is at the center of all my writing, all my feeling, all my living. Certainly that seems to be borne out by what it is I write, over and over again. At the very midpoint of the year, the sunniest, longest days, I find myself battling an encroaching sorrow, an irrefutable sense of farewell. The proof is in my archives.
The world bursts into riotous bloom, almost as though it is showing off its fecundity. The days are swollen and beautiful, the air soft, the flowering trees spectacular. The children gleefully wear shorts to school, the sidewalks are dusted with pollen and petals, and we round the curve of another year. We start counting down school days, we say goodbye to beloved babysitters who are graduating from college, and I find myself blinking back tears.
Every year, I’m pulled into the whitewater between beginnings and endings that defines this season. I can barely breathe.
It’s all captured in the event that so many of us attend, year after year, at this time: commencement. It was my own commencements that marked this season, for years: from grade school, high school, college, graduate school. And then there was a time when, though I wasn’t personally attending commencements, I felt their presence, sensed the ebb and flow of the school year. It seems that my spirit and the very blood in my veins will always throb to the cadence of the school year. And now it is my children who commence, who close a year and begin another, wearing too-long hair and legs, vaguely tentative smiles, and white.
Commencement. Isn’t this word simply a more elegant way of describing what might be the central preoccupation of my life? You end and you begin, on the very same day. You let go of something and while that I-am-falling feeling never goes away, you trust that you’ll land. And you do, on the doorstep of another beginning, a new phase, the next thing.
No matter how many times I’m caught from the freefall of farewell by a new beginning, though, I still feel the loss. As much as my head understands that endings are required for them to be beginnings, my heart mourns what is ending. That a seam of sorrow runs through my every experience is undeniable; it may sound depressing, but I genuinely don’t experience it that way. It is just part of how I’m wired, and it’s never closer to the surface than right now, as this school year winds down, as we celebrate the beginning that’s wrapped in the end, as we commence.
These words (since the break), were first published in 2013
10 thoughts on “Commencement”
I know the ripples of a similar seam. Wishing you safe passage as you are battered by the chop, breath held until the other side and seeing the glow of dawn.
Beautiful post! You have such a way with words. And I can strongly relate to the subject matter 🙂
Yes no wonder you are crying.
Dear Mom & Dad,
I can understand why you did it. In theory. I understand that you wanted to give me the best education money could buy. I don’t blame you for sending me away to an extremely strict boarding school when I was very young. I think you genuinely thought it was best for me – and for my younger brother, who you also sent away, to another boarding school in another part of the country, miles away from me.
What I find harder to forgive is that when there were clear signs that things weren’t working out – when I was constantly in trouble and deeply unhappy – when I attempted to kill myself as a teenager – you didn’t do anything about it. I can’t understand why you didn’t admit it wasn’t working out, pull me out of school and let me come home so we could figure it out together. I can’t understand how you let us come home at the holidays and didn’t once say: Stay here. How could you not pick up on the signs that my sibling was being bullied? Why didn’t you make any attempts to repair your family? You were meant to try to make things better. Isn’t that what parents do? After I ran away, after I tried to kill myself, you told me to pick myself up and go back to school – and that’s what I did. This taught me that, no matter how bad I feel, nothing will change and I just have to battle on – an unhelpful belief that has taken decades to work through.
I tried for such a long time to forget. I knuckled down, I got a degree, I appeared successful. But now, I can’t forget. I can’t stop wondering what you did with your time – how you justified it to yourself. Were the boat cruises, dinner parties, and weekends abroad worth it? Perhaps it was the convenience of it all – you never had to wash my school uniform, help with my homework, invite my friends over or pick me up from football or swimming or parties. You had oodles of spare time to spend with each other, in your immaculate home. You could do what you wanted. That must have been nice.
I’m angry that you didn’t feel strongly enough to change things. How could you have borne it, to know that your child was being woken up with a bell, not a kiss? How could you have trusted me to a bunch of strangers? You said that you loved me, but when I needed you most, your love wasn’t there. Your letters and postcards and phone calls weren’t enough.
Underneath the anger, I feel sorry for you. I know that the cracks are now showing. You’re reaping what you sowed. You still travel the globe, but now I think it’s to escape the loneliness of your lives. As you survey the dysfunctional wreck of the family you didn’t quite bring up, I wonder if you feel remorse and wish you’d done things differently.
My own children go to state school. It’s not perfect, it’s not exclusive, but that’s OK. Because the best education isn’t anything money can buy. It’s being at home, with your family, in a messy, chaotic, imperfect, and consistent way. That’s the way to bring up children. You show up every day. You’re there. It’s the best upbringing anyone can give a child, and the funny thing is, it doesn’t cost a penny.
I am trying to move on and forgive you, but it feels so hard when my feelings of abandonment and vulnerability leak into every part of my life. And when you ask for attention and companionship as you become increasingly infirm, do you have any idea how tempting it is for me to ignore you? Your son
A beautiful post! Hugs to you! Congrats to Grace and Whit.
A beautiful, heartfelt evocation of all the feelings that accompany major transitions in our lives. I can only wonder why Mary, above, felt that the comment section of your tender essay was an appropriate place to share a bitter anonymous letter that has no bearing whatsoever on the feelings you’ve entrusted us with. I admire you for allowing her the space she clearly needed to give voice to some deep anger — such a marked contrast to the portrait of your family that has taken shape over the many years of your writing here. Giving a child the gift of boarding school is NOT about “sending them away,” as I’m sure you and your own daughter would be the first to attest. It is about making a decision that’s right for a particular child and a particular family. And it should go without saying that it’s utterly inappropriate for any mother to presume she can judge another’s choices, or know what’s best for a child she has never met. Mary clearly has some work to do to make peace with unfortunate situations in her own life. In the meantime, hats off to you, and to Grace and Whit on this momentous day. Savor it!
It is absolutely the perfect word, but only more so with your excellent explanation why.
I’m back. I echo much of what Katrina shared in her comment, but would also like to say one more thing. I am not sure how long Mary has been reading your writing, but I don’t think she understands how you love. I have no question that you all are making the best decision for your family and that if at any time that was to change, you would adapt.
It is heartbreaking she had nowhere to put that pain but upon you. Sending love to you all.
I’ve been reading this blog since Grace has been in elementary school. She is such an independent, strong, and capable young woman because she is rooted in such a secure and loving family.
I can imagine saying goodbye is hard but she is going to have such an amazing experience.
This time of year – like so much of parenthood – is full of bitter sweetness. Thank you for sharing these moments. Even though our lives are different, I always find wisdom and comfort in your words.
Beautiful as ever Lindsey. In our town, elementary and middle school closing ceremonies are called ‘promotions’ but I have always loved the term promotion more. And I am so glad you share all these hard feelings with us. I am sure that the changes that are happening in your family now are so, so bittersweet but what an amazing gift of independence and education your children are receiving….
This is an absolutely beautiful ode to the present moment and exemplifies everything that I’ve long loved about your writing. Was reading through the comments and I’m taken aback by the oddly placed letter. Reading it makes my heart hurt as there is clearly so much pain in its writer, but I’m wondering why it should be here. These situations are far from one-size-fits-all. I hope and trust that the letter did not take away from the complicated joy of these precious days.
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