A gateway of uncertainty

Jordan Harris

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I don’t know why I thought they were cute, but I chose to wear skinny jeans the ugliest shade of purple that day, my preteen legs still swimming in them despite the advertised fit. A gray sweatshirt, black boots and a pair of sunglasses with thick white frames complete the ensemble. Next to me on the stone railing are my siblings — my younger sister on my right, my brother and my older sister on my left.

With the Campanile standing behind us, we squint at the sun in our faces as our parents snap the photo. My right arm is raised, two fingers flashing a cheesy peace sign to match my smile.

I don’t remember the trip this picture is from, and I hadn’t seen it in months until recently. I don’t know what possessed me to pose with those two fingers, but if the girl in that photograph had any sense of peace, in 2021, I envy her.

In these early weeks of the new year, I often recall a more recent trip to UC Berkeley, when I visited the campus as an accepted transfer student with my dad. Almost 10 years after that photo was taken, we made our way back to the landmark clock tower.

Bits and pieces from our conversations that day rise to the surface of my pool of memories. The marine layer hides it. He points to the picturesque body of water in the distance. Right there. The outline of the Golden Gate Bridge is barely visible, a decades-old ghost in the cloudy morning air. The gateway to the world. That’s what this place is.

At the time, I thought his words were a little too reminiscent of the shiny college marketing stuffed in dozens of oversized envelopes I got in the mail during high school. But now, they seem more like a cruel joke: Starting in March 2020, the remainder of my two years at UC Berkeley was stripped away, down to blue links and MP3 files and PDF copies of the books I was supposed to skim last-minute outside some classroom in Wheeler Hall. Now, that “gateway” is the screen of my laptop — a sober mockery of those words.

This is just one of the bitter fruits of the pandemic, but it is also the casualty of a decision. Right before my third semester of community college, I chose to stay an extra year instead of taking the traditional two-year route, and I got a senior year of online UC Berkeley classes in return. I like to blame that decision on the bad advice of a college counselor, but the reason that’s probably closer to the truth is that I simply wasn’t ready.

Yet, looking back, I’m not so sure what I was wary of. And in the storm of the last year, that part of me resurrected herself. She is a specter of uncertainty, mourning the six and a half months of university spent in the exquisite, if imperfect, privilege of relative normalcy — time as beautifully normal as the bridge across the bay.

I couldn’t have predicted the last year, of course, but that just makes this one all the more daunting. It’s like standing at the edge of the top of a rough cliffside: Looking down, all I see are dark, churning depths I don’t recognize, as merciless as the speed of time I can’t slow.

And when that ghost of my past self is loud, all I want to do is turn away from the edge and find the girl who could lift two fingers high above her because she wasn’t using them to juggle the weight of the world — a world that does not ever stop asking us to jump and then fall, all the way down, for better or for worse.

So in a way, I’m stuck, afraid of all the bittersweet decisions I could possibly make — decisions that can sour with regret as fast as the spread of a virus. Is all of this a bit overdramatic? Maybe. But what has the past year been, if not one full of scenes that seem more unreal than real?

On May 15, spring commencement will take place. Three days later, I will turn 23. I think of one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs: She sings of being stuck at the age of 23, unable to move on from a heartbreak.

When the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, there was no extraordinary, profound shift in the universe; time kept going, and so did the heartbreak that stained the 2020 calendar.

As of now, what May 15 will even look like is uncertain — the format of commencement has yet to be determined — and so am I. It’s hard to say, of course, if I’ll still feel stuck, but it’s also hard to look forward to the future when the present is blinding. The year is not one month over, and I have already felt blinded by varying degrees of resentment, sadness, sorrow, fear — but a necessary acceptance runs through it all, a beacon of clarity that’s faint, yes, but it’s enough.

Necessary because if I had solely relied on my lack of certainty in the past, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this. Acceptance because time moves whether we like it or not, and perhaps the best resolution I can have for myself is to strive to keep moving, as best as I can, with it.

It’s a mediocre one, verging on platitude — about as abstract and depthless as a glass half empty — but it’s enough, and in 2021, perhaps it’s more than enough to count as a glass half full.

Contact Jordan Harris at [email protected].