Every year starting mid-May the graduation merchandise comes out. There are caps and gowns, cards and confetti around every corner. A time of celebration to be sure, but it always gives me a little chuckle.
My family has always been a bit "unique," and one of our eccentricities is that we have an aversion to attending graduation ceremonies. This is especially ironic given our traditional Jewish background of valuing education above all else.
I think I can trace the pattern back to my father, who in his mind received his first full professorship in nephrology later in life then he would have planned, so that when the time came to honor the promotion, he kept it quiet rather than celebrating. (He made up for this in spades by becoming a full professor of radiology, psychiatry and neurology as well. No over-achievers here!)
My brother picked up the trend and ran with it. Graduating Summa Cum Laude from NYU, my brother refused to attend his graduation ceremony, and turned down the offer of a catered party to fly off to Sri Lanka and sit in silence at a Buddhist meditation retreat center, for a year. In silence. I'm not joking.
My mother, a little disappointed that she couldn't throw a congratulatory party for her son, was given new hope in the fact that my brother was accepted into Harvard Divinity School to get the highly esteemed "M-Div" in comparative religion. Matt did break his silence once in the year he was away to call home and let my parents know that he was okay.
"Matt, are you ok out there?" My parents asked anxiously.
"Yes, I'm very well. How is the family?"
"Well we are all great, but we wanted you to know, you got into Harvard Divinity School!"
"Oh, and Matt, happy birthday!"
"Is it my birthday?"
"It was your birthday two weeks ago."
"Yes, you just turned 28."
"Wow, that's funny. I'm going to go back to watching my breath now. I'll call you in six months. Don't worry. I'll be home in time to start school."
Always having one foot in another world, my brother doesn't prioritize celebrations. He didn't even know that he had missed his own birthday.
But in Harvard Divinity School, my mother really thought that she had her chance. At such an esteemed university, surely Matt would want to go to the graduation ceremony. She would be able to throw a party for her friends and even get a new outfit!
Foiled again. Matt was having none of it. Instead, he fell in love and married an incredible woman named Erin and moved to Brooklyn where they both got into highly competitive Ph.D. programs at Colombia. This time my mother was determined. She had both of them, and she had them cornered! Ph.D. programs take years, but they both managed to complete their dissertations at about the same time. My brother even won an award for best thesis -- but he didn't tell us until after the ceremony and after the graduation was over.
My accomplishments are pale in comparison, but I followed the group as much as was possible. I went to NYU and after working hard, completed my schooling early in three and a half years. By the time my graduation ceremony came around, I was touring the country with the Grateful Dead and was certainly not going back for anything "institutional." My diploma was sent to my parents' house where it sat unopened for almost 20 years.
In the following years, I moved to LA and became a yoga instructor. I went through three full teacher trainings but never felt them "party worthy" and never alerted my parents. Last year, I completed a one year extension program at Loyola Marymount University in Yoga Philosophy. Later I completed another substantial certification program at the university in "Yoga and Ecology" or "Green Yoga." Not long after, I received in the mail my diplomas for these two programs of which I was so proud. It occurred to me then, that if I were framing these diplomas, that I may as well dust off my NYU diploma and get it framed as well.
I called my mom who successfully masked her surprise when I asked her to dig around in my old room to search for the forgotten diploma. She found it and put it in the mail the next day. Again the poor diploma sat in my inbox for at least another month. Finally I pulled it out, dusted it off, opened it up and un-scrolled it only to find ... that it was not my diploma!
Instead it was an award called the "Founder's Award" given to me for the highest academic achievement. In the package NYU had even included a special golden tassel that I was to wear at my graduation ceremony to distinguish myself from the sea of purple tassels.
I won an award? For academic achievement?
Why didn't anyone tell me? Well I guess they did by sending me the award and tassel that I never even opened. I stared at the award for a full minute with my mouth hanging open.
Why didn't I know about this? Because I was on Dead Tour? Because I had "other really important things to do?" Because I "wanted to get onto the next phase of my life?" You've got to be kidding. I was so anxious to move forward, to figure out what was next, to jump into a better adventure, that not only did I have to finish school early, but I didn't even go to my graduation at all. In blowing off the ritual aspect of my right-of-passage, I missed something special. Pushing my life forward on a quest for a cathartic experience, I missed the gift that was right in front of me.
Sitting there in my office realizing what was unfolding, I wondered what else I had missed. In fact, what am I missing right now? What incredible award, compliment, universal truth am I totally unaware of, because I'm more focused on the future rather than the present?
Every year around this time, I see balloons, flowers and champagne for sale in the stores ready to grace someone's graduation party. Now when I see them, I think of my gold tassel and my sweet mom. Next year I go back to school to get my master's from LMU and I think when I graduate this time, I'll let her throw me a party.