It was May 22, 2014. Two days before I would leave a place that had shaped my identity and the course of my life in ways I can only begin to understand. I had always grappled with the idea of the “Bowdoin Bubble” — that my collegiate community was distinctly an “island unto itself” to quote a phrase from the Buddhist Dhammapada–a bastion of critical inquiry, thought, and introspection both spatially and temporally divorced from the real challenges and necessities of adult life. As I braced myself for the transition away from Bowdoin over the course of senior year, I couldn’t help but contend with an attitude of “well that was fun/thought-provoking/beautiful but it’s time to snap out of it and get real.” I still think there is some truth and responsibility to be gleaned from this understanding, but on this sunny day in Maine, it became ever more clear to me that the depth of human experience I had lived in the confines of this campus was too raw to dismiss as youthful frivolity, too analyzed and researched and substantiated to count as a mere abstract game of ideas, and too real to simply relegate to the rear view mirror and move on.
When I first got to know Dan Lesser in the context of my Mahayana Buddhism class junior year, it was very clear that he had an intellectual curiosity and reflective nature that resonated with me , and sure enough, he became a close friend throughout my time at Bowdoin. As we anticipated the imminent arrival of graduation day, and grappled to find closure amid the controlled debauchery that largely constitutes Senior Week, we both felt a need to bring people together to reflect on what we had experienced both individually and collectively during our time at Bowdoin.
On the evening of May 22, a group of seniors converged on the “Thorndike Oak” on the Bowdoin quad, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, was a notable gathering place of students of years past (as our classmate Sam Burnim would illuminate in his Baccalaureate address). We modeled the ceremony on a Quaker meeting, where those compelled to speak or play or sing or recite could do so amid a backdrop of silence. As I sat in this circle of reflectivity, the beauty, authenticity, and indelible nature of my own Bowdoin experience was reaffirmed and very evidently shared in the expressions of others, as well as in a vulnerable anecdote I decided to relate. Powerful stories and poems and songs were met with laughter and nostalgia and tears in a way that encapsulated the range of human experience contained here, testifying to the power of this space and time. It was fitting that without prior planning we ended the ceremony by joining together to sing “Let it Be.” And so we did.
The following day was May 23rd, and my family was beginning to arrive in Brunswick for the graduation festivities. It was an ominously cloudy day with a forecast of rain, reflecting the uneasy anticipation with which fellow classmates awaited the day to come. The day was a bit of a whirlwind attending departmental events and ceremonies while balancing my desire for low-key time with good friends and the arrival of my family. But perhaps the most memorable part of the day began when I met my grandfather at the Amtrak train station. We walked uphill together from Maine Street and entered the northern end of campus through a subtle yet ornamentally beautiful gateway. As we walked along the perimeter of the campus quad, I experienced a deep sense of pride in this place, and my grandfather’s presence here lent affirmation to how my Bowdoin experience constituted an indispensable chapter in my personal and familial history. And more broadly, this was a portal into an adult world in which I could relate to my grandfather and the rest of my family in a whole new way.
As I attempt to describe my experience on May 24th, I cannot help but recall a passage from the Tao Te Ching about the impossibility of truly encapsulating the essence of an experience through language or conceptualization:
“Words spoken about the Way have no taste. When looked at, there’s not enough to see. When listened to, there’s not enough to hear. When used, it is never exhausted” (Chapter 35).
My heightened awareness of the literal and figurative transition on Graduation Day elevated the experience to one in which I lost consciousness of space and time, submitting to a ritualized alternate reality marking the ultimate liminality in which I resided. Things simply flowed.
At some point Time reentered the fore and the ceremony came to an end. People quite literally dispersed. I walked around the quad eager for one final embrace with good friends, but amid all the bustle and agenda and partial goodbyes, it was clear that I had entered a new chapter of my life. This was what they call the “Real World,” and it remained to be seen how I would fare.