My last day of graduate school was more than a week ago. It was in one of my favorite classrooms — the drawing and painting lab where they keep all the wild and rare pigments in a cooled metal cabinet. My drawing instructor brought good bagels. (“My mother told me never to come with bad bagels,” he told us; these were from New York Bagel and Bialy, which is a 24-hour strip mall bagel joint off the highway.) I ate two bagels, even though I’d sworn I’d only eat one (impossible when the bagels are good, and free), and we did a critique of final projects. Mine was the millions of birds project. My peers said they would “urge me to make it bigger,” and I smiled and nodded, because I love how teeny some of the birds are, and now (at last) I know that critiques aren’t law.
My last day of school was also Luke’s last day at the Irving Park YMCA. On his last day, a pipe burst in the basement. He sent me a seven-second video of a flooded hallway lined with those plastic trash cans they have in school cafeterias, and a message that said, “Last day magic.” It sucks when a pipe bursts, don’t get me wrong; but there is something kind of wonderful about a memorable marker right where one belongs. I mean, how many last days do you really get to remember?
Last night I dove into Lynda Barry’s most recent book — it’s a memoir-type anthology called “One! Hundred! Demons!” Of course it is perfect, as is everything Lynda Barry touches. The third chapter is called “Lost Worlds,” and she writes about playing kickball as a kid. She says that when she was very young, she believed people in airplanes could see her playing on the sidewalk.
“This was long before I grew up and found out you can’t see very much from an airplane window. Big things, yes, but the little things are lost. The city is there and so are the streets, but at a certain distance people disappear. Whole neighborhoods of children just vanish.”
And then she shifts, writing about how much of what was important to us disappears as we get older and change. “Who knows which moments make us who we are? Some of them? All of them? The ones we never really thought of as anything special?” Often, Lynda Barry’s questions are more useful than anyone else’s answers.
Because of how movies and books work, I’ve always held this sort of inherent belief that Lasts ought to be climactic. When I taught elementary school in New Orleans I spent two years naively thinking the last week of school should be the biggest and the craziest and the most interesting and fun. It should be the “you-earned-it” week. It was such a letdown when I learned that a lot of the kids in New Orleans take the last week of school off because they have amassed vacation days, and what are you going to learn in the last week of school, anyway?
There’s a layer under that, of course. In the New Orleans public school system, student retention isn’t particularly high on a school-to-school basis. I had third graders who had been to as many different schools as they were years old. Families who make less money end up moving significantly more frequently than families who make more. According to the Census Bureau, common reasons for moving include searching for a better home, a cheaper home, and foreclosure or eviction. The psychology of moving has been heavily researched, because it is always emotional and is often traumatic. When transitions are inevitable, the premium on endings decreases.
On my last day of high school, everyone opened their lockers and threw their papers around the hallway. I thought this was very cool. “What an ending,” I thought. I took a bunch of pictures with my brand new digital camera (really high quality in the early aughts, let me tell you), and posted them on my LiveJournal. It never struck me that celebrating an ending with people you’ve known for a very long time might be a privilege.
It is among the many injustices of this life that only a select few are granted endings like these. Graduation is a sort of celebration of an ending — but it usually feels more like a launching ceremony than a Last Day. In adulthood, I am starting to see Lasts differently. They don’t work for everyone the way I always wanted them to work for me.
And mostly, last days aren’t counted because you don’t know they’re happening. When someone dies unexpectedly, you try to remember the last time you saw them, or held them, but it’s difficult. The last times rarely line up with the most memorable ones. This is ok: life is more interesting than movies or books are for precisely this reason. The unexpected comes with the territory.
This brings me back to Lynda Barry’s questions: “Who knows what moments make us what we are?” I still remember this green lizard I saw on a hike with my uncles in the California desert when I was eight — I remember exactly the slate of the rock where it sat and looked sideways out of its black eye. I do not remember the last time I saw my favorite-ever student, Arthur; or the last time I played make-believe mermaids in the pool with my sister — although I do remember taking Arthur to a movie on the weekend, and I do remember the shape of the outdoor pool where we pruned up in Southern California when I was a child. I don’t think I’ll remember my last day of graduate school. But graduate school was great, and I moved through it one foot in front of the other. Every moment, in its way (some ways are mysterious to humans), was counted.
There is this saying about treating every day like it is your last. To me, this has always sounded very exhausting. Maybe it is worth reversing it; draining the weight and democratizing life’s many experiences. Live each last day as though it is a day. I mean, show up every day with gentleness, openness, and presence. I mean, give each human and each experience as much of yourself as you can manage on any given occasion. Don’t let any of them mean more or less; don’t save it up; but don’t use it all up, either. Ration your energy, listen to the people you love, give yourself permission to both skip school and throw all your locker papers across the hallway, regardless of the date on the calendar.
Well, no, actually — I see now that it is very rude to throw all your locker papers across the hallway. If you are going to do that, pick them up. Janitorial staffs are criminally overworked and underpaid.