But first, I wish I knew where to begin. It is midnight again, and I am sitting at my computer, hoping this keyboard-clacking will somehow transfigure into the wisdom I need for tomorrow. The people I walked past today, avoiding puddles just like me, were hoping for wisdom too. I could simply be projecting, but that’s what I think. As sunlight signals spring and spring signals the end to another school year, maybe we are all asking ourselves where we’ll go from here. Seniors, freshmen, parents awaiting graduation, all asking: Who will hold us still? Are we as alone as we might feel?
Yes. No. I don’t know. I’ll confess—I was pretty alone when I first stumbled upon Marina Keegan’s essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” I had caught a bad strain of Covid and was forced into a 10-day quarantine, complete with body aches and a NyQuil dependency. Needless to say, I was really, really sad. And lonely. I didn’t remember what sunlight felt like. My brain spiraled a lot—to dark, uncertain places. I reflected on death and solitude, and when my floormate sent me “The Opposite of Loneliness,” I cried. Or at least I wanted to cry.
Marina Keegan, who wrote the now-famous essay, graduated from Yale in 2012. She discussed this beautiful phenomenon that was “not quite love… not quite community” but rather “an abundance of people, who are in this together.” That abundance Marina described was the irreplaceable, incredible college experience. It was what she called “the opposite of loneliness,” and what made her lament the end of her time at Yale. But five days after she graduated, Marina died. It was May 26, 2012.
Strangely enough, I had muddled through that same year while pondering death. That is, as much as a 12-year-old could ponder death—my grandma had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I spent most of my days either sampling hospital food or moseying around her house with my cousins. In our childishness, in our need for play, my cousins and I skirted the horror of my grandma’s looming end. I remember discovering new card games more than I remember my grandmother’s diagnoses. But I also remember learning, for the first time, what it felt like to cry tears for someone else. Warm and heavy was the feeling. One year after Marina died, my grandma died too. It was May 15, 2013.
This year, May 29, 2022, I will be graduating from Brown with the rest of my class. It will be 10 years since Marina’s graduation, as well as her death. It will be nine years since my grandma’s passing. I will step onto the stage, tuck my diploma under my arm, and wave goodbye to the other 20-something-year-olds who guided me into precarious adulthood. I will wave goodbye to the friends I fear will forget me, and then I’ll board my last flight back home as an undergraduate. When I think about these things, I am terrified; I am hopeful. Where will we go from here? Who will hold me still? Am I as alone as I might feel? Perhaps even then, I will not be able to answer.
Perhaps even when I am no longer 20-something, even when I must approach death with a brave face, I will not be able to answer. But that, too, is a lesson I’ve learned during these four short years: With age, there will only be more questions. Maybe having more questions just means you’re growing older “right.” (It’s not that the answers will elude us, or that answers don’t exist; it’s knowing that all the “right” answers matter less and less.)
In quarantine, and especially after reading “The Opposite of Loneliness,” I spent a lot of time thinking about women who have died or almost died, women who might have been me: Marina Keegan (2012); my grandmother (2013); my friend from high school, who shares my name (2016); my mom, who nearly died on the boat departure from Vietnam in 1979; the daughter of my dad’s friend, who would have graduated from college this year too (2015); the victims of the Atlanta shooting (2021); Julia Li, Christina Yuna Lee, Michelle Alyssa Go (2022). I think of those in Ukraine this year, and those in other wartorn countries in other years. I think of them, and I wonder how death hasn’t touched me yet. I wonder what would have happened if my dark quarantine thoughts had swept me deeper—as so often happens to college students, especially during these isolated Covid times. What if I died tomorrow? What if I died five days after graduation? Yet again, yet again, Covid has put death, and therefore life, into perspective for me.
I think this is why my friend often compares senior year to terminal illness. Even as the flowers bloom, we approach the terrifying end of things. We realize how much more there is to live; we don’t quite want to let it all go yet. But every Tuesday and Thursday, my class on Buddhism and Japanese literature reminds me that we must.
In Japanese, the term mono no aware refers to the bittersweet realization of an ending: Cherry blossoms will fall, and even the deepest of loves will cease with death. Mono no aware implies that there is beauty in impermanence—or, perhaps, that beauty only exists through impermanence.
But what if beauty existed regardless? What if impermanence simply allows our illiterate hearts to understand the depth of already-existing beauty? Mono no aware might simply point us to the lesson of letting go—and also of loving even old, disappearing things. Like ourselves.
To the warm melody of a strumming guitar, perhaps we are all singing, “I wake up in the middle of the night; it’s like I can feel time moving. How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?”
In college, that difference between 18 and 22 feels so big. But now that I am on the other side of the gap, I’m beginning to question the bigness. The truth is, I probably want to befriend the (cool, intimidating) freshmen more than they want to befriend me. I probably have just as many unanswered questions in my life as they do, maybe even more. I still don’t know where I will be after graduation, or if I’ll ever be back. I’m still worried about losing people. I’m still wondering about love. I’m still chugging along, hoping that life lasts a little longer.
So just as much as I wish I knew where to begin, I wish I knew how to end. How to end these last two months of college. How to reckon with the possibility of other things ending alongside my time at Brown—things like flooded Google Calendars, late-night Jo’s runs, friendships. I wish I knew how to approach such goodbyes with grace, hope, and wisdom.
Am I alone as I might feel? Yes. No. I don’t know. But I’d like to believe that endings do not erase beginnings. I’d like to believe in a world that, despite blustery winters, turns snow into sunlight. So I’ll just live as if those things are true.
I’ll live believing in something like the opposite of loneliness. And, as Marina did, I hope it extends beyond the college campus so that even my mom, as she reads these words from our cramped upstairs room, can feel it. And you, wherever you might be. I hope you can feel it too.