“You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave,” the Eagles said. Whenever I stay at a hotel, even for a night or two, I get a funny feeling just before I leave that I have forgotten something. I check all the drawers, even though I know there’s nothing in them but hairdryers and Bibles. I search under the bed for stray socks. I triplecheck the location of my toothbrush. Even when I know I haven’t forgotten anything, I still leave the room feeling like I have. It’s time to check out, and I don’t want to. I’m caught in that moment between an ending and another beginning, worrying about forgetting everything, trying to make all my belongings fit in my suitcase.
Even as I try to look forward to the next thing I’m doing, I’m already starting to look back. Cue sentimental music as a montage of my year unrolls, framed at all times by a blue California sky.
The period just before you leave anywhere you have been for some time can be exhausting. Just thinking about all the goodbyes I will have to say over the next few weeks makes me tired. Growing up in Ireland, I attended a kind of summer camp called “Irish college” for three weeks. You have to speak Irish all the time. No one knows what is going on. For those three weeks, you become closer than you ever imagined possible to the people you’re sharing this experience with — you’re all away from home and you rely heavily on each other. When the three weeks come to an end, you part with promises to stay in touch — sometimes you do, more often you don’t. You go home and move on with your life.
But leaving Berkeley after nine months will not be so easy. There are just too many goodbyes to be said. Find me a person who likes goodbyes, and I will write “asshole” across their forehead. The term “see you later” was invented to make goodbyes a little easier. Maybe we will see the person later, maybe we won’t, but the possibility of it makes parting a little easier to swallow. The weeks just before I leave have become a long checklist of people to see, places to go, a few last things to add to my “Berkeley experience.”
In such a huge university, we all seek out different things that define our time at UC Berkeley. Far be it for me to try to define any “universal” Berkeley experience. But I’ll remember having my classes interrupted by the chiming of the Campanile. Stopping for a bit of casual protest about something or other on my way to class. Checking how many days are left until the end of the world on “Yoshua’s” chalkboard. Getting lost in Dwinelle. Trying to always have a spare three dollars for Top Dog. Getting less sleep than I’d previously imagined possible. Finding myself at Kip’s on a Thursday night and wondering why.
As an international student, you know your time is limited, and so you have to act like a tourist — travel on the weekends, take photos of seemingly mundane things, make a “bucket list” and try to check everything off. But you’ll never have time to do absolutely everything you wanted to do, and worrying about the things you haven’t done is a waste of valuable energy. Because if there’s one thing you always need at UC Berkeley, it’s energy.
Most people find endings hard. There are a lot of pithy one-liners out there trying to say smart things to take the sting out of an ending. “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” says Shakespeare. It’s actually not a sweet sorrow at all. It’s pretty awful, actually, Shakes. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. XOXOXOXOXO smiley face HEART! This line was said a lot at my high school graduation with a tone of slightly forced cheeriness. But it’s my pity party, and I’ll cry because it’s over if I want to, thank you very much. It’s much easier to remember to smile because it happened once you’ve given yourself adequate time to grieve its ending.
When I leave, I know I’ll still be running on Berkeley time for a while. But don’t get sentimental, Radiohead said. It’ll all end up drivel. Good advice. If only I could follow it myself. Though it’s time to check out, I know what the Eagles mean. I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave something behind here. Where’s my toothbrush?
I can feel something tingling near the back of my tonsils. It’s a sense of an ending. I’m sure you’ll all agree that my collected columns this year have been heartbreaking works of staggering genius.
Now, everything is illuminated. Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I’ve reached a bend in the river. It’s time to get back on the road and face a brave new world. But not until I’ve tried to fit as many book titles as I possibly can into my closing paragraph. I’m out. Up, up and Mrs. Dalloway.