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Go sit on the quad

senior column

As I'm writing this, it's been 45 days since I left Duke. That's not such a long time, but it already feels like a distant dream. I can hardly remember what my dorm room looked like, or my classmates' faces, or my favorite study carrel in Perkins. 

Four years, gone just like that. In some ways, it's even more than four years—how long ago did I decide that I wanted to go to college? How long ago did I decide that Duke was my dream school? In the blink of an eye, everything we've worked for since then is gone, without so much as a goodbye or a final stroll through the Gardens with our friends. 

I never thought these memories would slip away so fast, but they've already started. As I drove the thousand miles home from Durham, I kept spinning a sort of highlight reel of this year, and the last three, in my head. UNC Gameday. P-Checks. 100 Days Ball. Durham Night Market. Beach Week. Junior LDOC. That specific night at Shooters. Marketplace Thanksgiving dinner. 

For hours and hours as I drove north on I-95, I desperately grasped for memories like a child catching fireflies, trying to chase and hold onto as many as possible. I hoped that if I completed a kind of speed-reading of my favorite memories, I could preserve them. 

Only a few weeks later and they’re already dissolving. When I try to think of the last time I saw individual people, I can't remember the specifics—did we have lunch at Div or West Union that time? Did we linger in the Allen building to gossip after our last real college class? Did I see them on UNC Gameday? Or at the bonfire after? How can I not remember?

It hurts to feel these memories blending together. It stings the same way it did when I deleted the event titled "Commencement Weekend!!!" from my calendar, or used a Sharpie to black out the line about my summer internship on all of my graduation announcements, or curated a very emo Spotify playlist for this semester. In the grand scheme of things, these losses are insignificant. But I feel them, all the same. 

Campus groups and departments have asked us to reflect on our time at Duke and pass on wisdom to underclassmen. Graduating with no plans, no job, no idea of where I will be in one month, or two or twelve, I feel completely unqualified to be giving advice to anyone. Don't get me wrong—I'm happy with my time at Duke, and so grateful for these four years. But hindsight is indeed 2020 and the little I know is based on all the things I wish I'd done differently.

So this is my advice to you: Say "thank you"; say it often. To your friends, your professors, your boss and your bus driver. Thank everyone who has helped you with something, everyone who taught you something, everyone who gave you a study guide or a shoulder to cry on. When other people’s kindness and energy and love have affected your life, be grateful. And tell them so.

Read some poetry. Right now, I recommend anything that reminds you that we are not the only ones on this planet. Mary Oliver, Robert Frost or Wendell Berry are all great places to start. From Berry: "When despair for the world grows in me… I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief…For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." How great is that?

Ask out your class crush. I spent all of this semester wondering if a guy in one of my classes was single and then reveling in the joy of being able to secretly stare at his face on Zoom. During our last class—the very last time I will ever see this man—he said something that revealed he has actually been single all this time. Alas! Don't be like me; ask them out. 

Go to CAPS. Even if you think you don't need to! Even if you don't think it will help! It is not a perfect system, but they, like all of us, are doing the best they can. And that is better than nothing. For your sake, and the sake of the friends who listen to and support you, go to CAPS. 

Say “I’m sorry.” Say “I miss you.” Say “I take it all back.” Say “I was wrong.” These things are hard, and are not fun to say or to hear. But it is worse to not have the chance at all, or to have had the chance and wasted it. Say it, and mean it.

And my final piece of advice is this: go sit on the quad. Take a blanket, take a Frisbee, take an iced coffee and a snack. Go barefoot; feel the care that has been devoted to making the grass this soft and green. Lay on your back so you can see the leafy canopies of the giant oaks that this campus was built around. What shapes do the clouds make? Can you hear the Chapel bells tolling the Alma Mater? It must be a Friday.

You’ll get pollen on your laptop screen. Your back will be stiff and your legs will fall asleep after half an hour. You won’t get hardly any work done. But the time will not be wasted: you might set a new record for the number of people you can squeeze onto a single picnic blanket at once. You might stay there until after sunset and be the first to congratulate your friends as they leave their 7:00 exams. You might get better at Frisbee, or read part of your book aloud, or order a pizza for dinner. 

And it might just be the very best of Duke, right there on the grass. A year from now, you might remember those sunny afternoons on the quad, so many of them that they’ve all blended together into one long, perfect memory, and realize: how lucky we are to have something that makes saying goodbye—or not having the chance to say goodbye—so hard.

Gretchen Wright is a graduating Trinity senior who once used official budgetary funds to purchase a picnic blanket. For helping her through this year and this column, she wants to thank Divinity Cafe, Florence Pugh’s Instagram stories and her editor, Leah. She’s just realizing that she and Leah never met face-to-face, even though they know a lot of the same people and Leah has a very funny Twitter. How weird is that? Thanks for reigning in the ramble, Leah.

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