Anti-anticlimax

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On Thursday of finals week, we sat together on our front stoop, awkwardly Zoom-waving goodbye to our classmates and beloved professor. We closed the window and exhaled, wishing we could walk out of that classroom with everyone one last time, wishing the end felt real enough to cry over. Instead, we put our masks on and walked another circle around the block. We felt very little, except tired, and screen headaches. 

We’re among the luckiest: This vague anticlimax is one of our few symptoms of this disease. In March, midway through the last semester of our shared UC Berkeley life, the future started shuttering one plan at a time. No fanfare, no big backyard parties, just the slow skittering letdown: Classes move online; friends move home; this suspense will last until next week, next month, next year. 

Of course, we each faced it differently. 

Sonnet: For years I’d pictured it: gown-clad, maybe hungover, sitting in rows at the Greek Theatre among thousands of classmates. Someone exciting would give a rousing speech; we’d dab our eyes or, in my case, sponge torrents from my cheeks. Then we’d slide the tassels from one side of our caps to the other in unison and toss them in the air like so many jubilant, blue-tasseled birds. 

I’ve always been a sucker for this kind of ceremony. My family isn’t religious, but I always cajoled my family to church on Christmas: I relished singing carols in pews, recounting the Nativity story, each of us clutching a hand-held fire hazard in the procession at the end. On my 21st birthday, I went on a crusade to tick off each of the fabled Berkeley traditions: racing the bartender in a chug atop the bar at Raleigh’s; receiving a free IPA with a little floating candle at Jupiter; whipped cream shots at Kip’s with hands behind the back. 

These little rituals felt important, even necessary: containers to hold the surge of emotion consonant with the gravity of the moment. Without them, I worried I would end up with blue balls of unreleased anticipation for these milestones: almost-Christmases, not-quite-birthdays, nongraduation. 

Madeleine: In the runup to graduation, I suppressed eye rolls as those around me went jittery with anticipation. The ceremony we would have had — itchy gown, thick May heat — never appealed to me. I’d heard too many stories of letdown, of rain or a heat wave or a hangover dulling the expectant shine of that one storied moment. 

Our collective obsession with ceremony seemed like a commitment to disappointment, and I wasn’t interested. I wielded this antipathy as a bubble-burster. I threatened my mother I’d secretly elope in the woods; I hid my face during every rendition of “Happy Birthday,” despite my friends’ insistence that I get on a bar.

This time, though, the bubble burst without my help. In the wake of all these cancellations, I began to yearn. Suddenly, I wanted some way to collect the past four years in my hands, to see what made them, how they made me. I reached out to mentors and friends, grasping for wisdom. 

One former professor and I met in virtual office hours, exchanging pixelated smiles from our living room couches. When I said we had nothing planned for graduation, he implored us to create some kind of event, some way of marking passage. He described ceremony as a portal: a way to close this experience and step into the next one. Otherwise, he argued, we are suspended in anticlimax, in anticipation. 

Sonnet: Looking back on college, if I’m honest with my ceremony-smitten self, the moments I cherish as peaks of the experience didn’t actually involve much orchestration. They were made of the stuff of our everyday lives: a particularly lively Thursday night at the Starry Plough; a vigorous seminar discussion in March, back when we didn’t know they were numbered. The magic comes in flashes, in the midst of the tumble of repetition, the gradual accumulation of knowledge and experience and relationships. 

That climactic release I’ve always looked for: This time, we may not be able to manufacture it. But I’m beginning to think that, just like the other kind of blue balls, the anticlimax we feel will dissipate. The big, important moments — whether or not we knew that’s what they were at the time — have already happened, and they’ll remain ours to remember, to exchange, to keep. They were special precisely because they didn’t bear the pressure of occasion. And the gravity of this transition will continue to sink in slowly, gradually, as we tumble through the motions of moving out and moving on. 

Madeleine: As Sonnet loosened her grip on ceremony, I became the insister: We must pop champagne, I must see you before you leave. On the eve of two friends’ departures, we sat 6 feet apart, catching each other in memory. Remember, someone would say, and we did, and we laughed. We let these stories embalm the past, acknowledging just how different we are now from the people who first met. 

We could not gather, but we made do. I donned an extravagant yellow dress and cut fruit for a four-hour family Zoom, in which everyone cried and at least seven people sang. I romped around campus with my housemates, posing for grad pics in all the usual places. I even let them put me in a cap and gown. 

**

In the end, the closest we came to a graduation ceremony was with our housemates up in the hills of Tilden Park. We shared one cap among the eight of us and conferred handmade diplomas to each other, strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” in our iPhone speakers. Doing funny voices to announce each other’s majors, things such as “plant obsession studies” and “Scrabble, but make it science.” Sweet — and definitely symbolic — but not particularly momentous. We didn’t pretend to feel a gravity that hadn’t settled in yet. But it was our way to say, “This is all over. Let’s make new plans.”

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected]