ODDS ARE THERE'S not much I can tell you about graduations that you do not already know. If you’ve been only to one, you will know the basics: the mawkishness, the viral replication of platitudes, the speeches and encomiums and ill-advised flights of Latin — the sound of a dead language being killed, a friend once said — and the generally glacial pace at which things proceed and process.
But there is also, a little bewilderingly, the crossing of all this ritual tedium with bright-lit moments of genuine exultation, of accomplishment and pride and love overflowing.
The sharp conflict between these two things, the numbing and the suddenly radiant, might be one reason people so often cry at graduations.
But there are others.
If you’re curious about these other reasons for tears, I know who can help you. Ask the plus-ones. Ask the standers-on-the-edge of commemorative photos, the queerer kin. Ask the stepparents. Ask the ex-stepparents.
Because of what I do — teach literature and theory and especially queer theory to college-age kids — I probably think about rites and ceremonies rather more than I’m made to attend them. This is not the worst thing about doing what I do. Along the way, as a teacher, a stepparent, and then as an ex-stepparent, I’ve picked up a few benchmarks for that thinking, for wondering about how rituals make and unmake visions of kinship, family, and love.
For instance, in a beautiful book called The Wedding Complex from back in 2002, Elizabeth Freeman cracked open that great ritual of heterosexual consolidation and, reading its baroque arrangements of persons and relations with exquisite care, restored to view all the queernesses nested there within it. The wedding, she showed, ritualizes all those looser, lateral, errant forms of intimacy and attachment — think of groomsmen and bridesmaids, think of flower children, think of the wide array of communal invocations — that the legal act itself, the marriage, means to subordinate and deemphasize, as it sanctifies coupledom as the paramount social form. As Freeman presents it to us, the wedding is a ceremony haunted by queer ghosts: a ritual that can’t help but broadcast all the expansive, extrafamilial forms of belonging from which the marriage itself seeks to remove the couple.
I’d like to be able to say something similar works itself out in graduation ceremonies, those ponderous rites of ascent. But honestly — and here, maybe it’s just the obliquity of my own experience talking — I incline to doubt it. For the graduate, there are teachers, mentors, friends, and fellow travelers, and this is all duly noted. Still, it can feel a bit rough, the culminating shout-out directed, inevitably, to Mom and Dad.
“Will the families stand up?"
This is a wholly unmalicious moment. But it also brings into swift relief the obvious fact that all the pageantry and speechifying might have encouraged you to mislay, which is that occasions such as these are as much about the concretization of a specific social fantasy — a vision of the good life, or at least the normal life — as they are about anything else at all.
Queer theory, by the way, has always known this, and has given us wonderful tools for anatomizing these microclimates of sociality. In an essay from better than two decades ago, which has lingered undissipatingly in the rooms of my thought since I first encountered it in grad school, Eve Sedgwick wrote of “the brutality of a society’s big and tiny decisions, explicit and encoded ones, about which lives have or have not value.” What she says of lives is true, also, of forms of relation. So the closer you can get to the charmed circle of official family, the more rich you will be in these particular forms of recognition.
And the further afield you are? Then, and there, you might find yourself asking, with pain and urgency, a different set of questions: What makes my place here? What ballasts these unofficial attachments, these deinstitutionalized loves? Ongoing devotion? Responsibility and care?
Will the families stand up? What is it that makes for anybody’s enfranchisement under the sign of family? On whose authority do you know to stand or stay seated?
A lot can occur to you inside the long moment of this hesitation.
And then, perhaps, it comes to you. You start to entertain the thought that what ties you to this moment is that other thing around which “family” is ever and always built. That thing, of course, is sorrow.
Here is what you do if you are someone like me, someone on the cusp of official family. On a rainy morning in the country, inside an echoing gymnasium of exposed concrete and scant bunting, join the dozen or so supporters of a sweet kid about to graduate high school. What is your place among them? This is a question of high emotional resonance but also, in the moment, a more practical sort of confusion: where to sit?
Accept the luck of things and take the seat that’s offered to you.
This is how you find yourself seated immediately behind the woman with whom, for a while, you raised the child about to graduate, back when this child, her daughter, was in grade school and when the two of you were married. Take your seat behind this woman, whom you loved with a devouring and awestruck passion, and watch as she casually touches the forearm of the man for whom she left you, years ago now, those few weeks after you found out you and she were not, as you had thought, going to have a baby. Sit maybe a foot behind this man, his overstuffed camera bag, his rolled-up blue jeans cuffs. Look for a long blinding time at the naked nape of his neck, as he whispers nothing consequential in the ear of the woman you were married to, and then, one day, weren’t.
It’s at this point that time will start to get gluey. And so, as your stomach begins to tremble and twist, as second by second you feel yourself coming wholly unstrung, tie yourself together like this: as intently as you can, think about the wonder of love you feel for this kid, this beautiful miraculous kid, sitting up there invisible to you among the crowd of girls. Not, as occasions like this are always reminding you, your daughter, maybe not even your stepdaughter, but the girl to whose mother you are no longer married. And feel that love as, in this strange and unnerving way, it comes shivering through your body.
It will help, at this point, to try to recall what a friend once told you about, of all things, women and tears. Crying, she said, is for women often the expression of cyclonic sorts of feelings, like grief and especially rage, that can in the moment find for themselves no other acceptable outlet. And cry, and cry, and cry, and cry.
It’s remarkable to consider the genuine impoverishment of our conceptual vocabularies when it comes to imagining forms of care and nurturance — of love — that fall even a little aslant of the normatively familial. We can throw a world of praise and Emmys at Modern Family, we can cultivate the not-unuseful (if a bit therapeutically saccharine) languages of “blended families,” we can in our more fulsome moments insist love makes a family. None of these things is malign. Neither do they do much, cumulatively, to dislodge the sign FAMILY, with all its unexpurgated narrowness of vision, from its place of singular prominence.
Graduations are far from the only time we see this. Another example: Years ago the college where I teach made the altogether sensible decision to implement a uniform policy for parental leave, so that newly pregnant folks would no longer be left to negotiate what terms they could for themselves in individual arrangements with supervisors unbound by any strict policy or precedent. At the faculty meeting where this was being finalized some colleagues and I, many of us associated with queer work on campus, suggested that this was so welcome a development — but oughtn’t it to be a policy that extends not solely to new parents? Oughtn’t it to address anybody entailed in responsibilities of care that become, suddenly, outsized and unworkable: people with parents or siblings or friends who find themselves in dire need, with lovers or cohabitants who become sick, or with children not their own for whom they are abruptly required to tend?
Make the basis of the policy, we suggested, “intimate care,” rather than parental leave. Wouldn’t that be a form of distinction at least a little less invidious?
I won’t say those suggestions were greeted with hostility, exactly — though there was some — so much as exasperation and a genuine bewilderment. Couldn’t we see that this clear and elegant policy could only be muddled by these esoteric extensions? After all, as we were reminded repeatedly, people in such situations could surely work out private, individual arrangements for themselves. Or were we just antifeminist?
It was hardly a crushing blow, just another small reminder of the order of things. But I can remember thinking how neatly it tracked with the turn in national queer and progressive politics toward what would later be called “marriage equality.” I don’t mean that quite as dismissively as it might sound. Yes, there is an unhappy irony here, in the ways a complex ethic of intimate care, energized by the fraught and shifting alliances among feminists and queers of color and sex radicals and the sick and the dying, would give way to a national politics devoted to the re-enshrinement of the connubial couple.
You can feel pretty immediately disheartened when you think even for a moment of the astonishing richness of theoretical legacy in queer scholarship for addressing precisely these questions — from Gloria Anzaldúa on the borderlands to Samuel R. Delany in Times Square all the way out to Sedgwick’s wonderful remark about “the theoretical parsimony of the Oedipal scenario” — and of how easily it was all made marginal in the rush toward that all-trumping freedom, the freedom to marry. If you came of intellectual age in a moment before “marriage equality” was the coin of the kingdom, you will know well of what I speak.
But it is understandable, more than understandable, that there should be politics mobilized around marriage. This is so much the case that even to be ambivalent about this political turn — as many of us are — can feel churlish and ungenerous. Nobody isn’t happy for their friends who choose, because now they can choose, to be married. (Least of all divorced people like me.) It simply is the case that a multitude of forms of entitlement and social enfranchisement reside still in the normative family. And these forms of recognition — recognition in its most public as well as its most intimate senses — are a long human way from negligible.
I’ll say this for graduation ceremonies: you are afforded the chance, in those tranced unmoving hours, to do a great deal of thinking.
As I sat there, feeling a desperate gratitude for my ex-wife’s sister, who occasionally put a steadying arm around my shoulder and fed me a stream of tissues, I confess I thought not that much about the intellectual and political trajectories of theory from the ’90s. Instead, I thought about exactly the sorts of things you’re meant to think about at graduations.
I thought about the kid up front — now a poised, arch, rangy 18-year-old — going to kindergarten, with this huge beaming toothy smile. I thought about the singular ferocity of her six-year-old crying jags, many of which were about, amazingly, justice. (There she is crying at swim lessons because she had been scolded for breaking a rule, though it was a rule that, with an outraged sorrow, she insisted she hadn’t been told.) I thought of visiting her at this school far from home, to which she had determined, a little heartbreakingly, that she wanted to go; about how amazingly free from insolence she was in her desire to put distance between herself and the people who loved her, and whom she loved; about how I described her, and her laserlike focus, to friends in those years. “She’s like an arrow speeding through the air,” I said.
I had a quick clear vision of driving home from ballet in a winter snowstorm, and talking together about the awesomeness of “In Between Days,” by The Cure.
And as the sound of it in my head drowned out for a happy moment or two the speaking of dignitaries and deans (oh it couldn’t be me and be her in between without you) I thought about the grace, the splendid pop magic, with which songs just like it had sustained us, me and this kid, especially in those awful, queasy months after I’d left our house, when my contact with her daily routines became so abruptly attenuated. Since she was eight I’d been making her mixes on her birthday — I was and am very much that guy — and through the blesséd gift of microprocessors I’d been able to keep them all, archived across a series of devices. For her 18th birthday I had in fact re-made her the whole collection, some 12 hours of music, a great sheath of CDs.
But in the months and then the years after the divorce, I’d begun sending her music whether or not it was her birthday, for Valentine’s Day or, once she’d gone away to school, for exams. I remembered a text she sent me once about a Santogold song: “Your mixes,” she said, “are all that gets me through study hall.” For weeks I’d hear it and feel a jolt of uncut happiness.
These were the better, the more manageable moments. As the ceremony’s minutes slow-dripped along, there were others. For instance I was reminded of how wastefully I’d passed a lot of the days since my removal from the immediate orbit of this child’s life. So much stupid time was spent thinking — if you can call that short circuit of counterfactual obsessiveness thought — about the person seated now just in front of me, and of how she lived her days. There had been at the scene of our dissolution so much wreckage, so much haphazard cruelty, and I regret to say that I had, in my more broken moments, treasured up visions of some secret sorrowful reckoning. It is hard not to: you imagine this face, this once so-cherished face, and then you imagine it haunted by sadness, an inarticulable regret.
Sit where I sat for a few hours — though honestly a few minutes would have done just as well — and you will see that this is, in addition to pathetic, wishful and inane. There is no great mystery here. You live the way everybody does. You build around yourself an ordinary, analgesic life, made up of accreting moments and small gestures. That whisper, that glance.
Everyone has a right to this. It is no crime. I will tell you this, though: to see it up close, in the fine grain of its details and in slow articulated time — this, I promise you, is edifying. You look away and look away until you can’t.
It’s probably true that, for just about everybody attending them, graduations make for a queasy seesawing of delight into sorrow and back. But for me, the intimacy of those two feelings had a different taste. It was as clear a reminder as any I’ve ever had that there is another name for that mix of joyousness and unexpended grief, and for their permanent adjacency. You might just call it ex-stepparenthood.
Like every other intellectual movement or strain of critical thought, queer theory is periodically pronounced dead. There’s nothing particularly malign or wrongheaded about these cyclical bouts of derision, Oedipal though they may be. In a Chronicle piece from a few years back marking the end of the venerable Series Q from Duke, Michael Warner addressed the dialectics of queer theory’s demise and ongoingness, and noted in particular a fruitful ambivalence in the strongest new queer work about its own organizing rubric. Taking as exemplary Jasbir Puar’s pathbreaking anatomization of the racist and imperializing logics at the heart of an increasingly hegemonic queer liberalism, Warner noted that Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages works simultaneously as a brilliant critique of queer politics, and as queer critique.
I think he’s right. Which is another way of pointing to something of the unexpired utility of queer theory, in at least one of its extensions. Whatever else one can say of it, this work offers us an intricate critical archive that, however beguiled we may be in the contemporary moment by the marriage plot, enriches our conceptual languages, and particularly our languages for imaging the fraught terrain of intimate life, inestimably. It is work that, with an imaginative force that has accumulated over decades, reminds us of all the sorts of love that are no less durable, ardent, or cherishable for being more or less nameless. Think of Lauren Berlant’s great thumbnail description of queer scholarship as rooted in the effort “to focus on patterns of attachment we hadn’t even yet known to notice, patterns in which sexuality and intimacy are enacted in a broad field of social relations that anchor us to life.” She goes on, beautifully, “Being a friend, a regular, a neighbor, a part-time lover, an ex-lover, an intimate; being gender dysphoric, or just plain gay or straight — all of it is seen as an effect of many causes and a complex, intimate practice of world-building.”
Nothing about the world suggests to me we have less need, now, of just this impassioned articulacy, this expansion of the roster of attachments we can recognize as sustaining and valuable. And sometimes I think we need such language as badly as we do, such galvanizing inducement to recognition, less because loving people do not instinctively wish to employ and extend it than because it is a thing the world encourages them, ritual by accumulating ritual, to forget.
At the end of all the pomp and photo-grabbing clamor, I sat with the new graduate for a few minutes in a room of rich, wood-paneled decor with rain-slanted light pouring through the latticed windows behind us. I gave her the gift I’d thought she might enjoy, and it plainly made her very happy, which was wonderful to see. She read the inscription, which said something simple, and then turned to me and said something simple, and this caused my voice to tighten and my eyes to well. And as the impulse to tearfulness strained at me once again, she looked at me.
The look she gave me is all I want to keep from the day.
Like her, it was direct, and smiling. It was wordless. What it said was: I know this was hard for you, but really everything is ok.
So when I say that she is miraculous, this is what I mean. I mean the astonishment of a kid who smiles this smile while surrounded by what from so many angles looks like disaster — ex-husbands, new spouses, a dense cross-wiring of adult sorrow — and who, somehow, makes room for all of their love.
Minutes later the lot of us — cousins, exes, aunts, steps- in many forms — crowded around her for the obligatory portrait of this once-ever assembly, what Philip Larkin calls “this frail traveling coincidence.” Before I detached from the gathering and made my way to the parking lot, she kissed me goodbye and said, “I’ll see you next week?” She would. And then, a little wearily, grinning at everyone around her and eyeing the sky smeared with clouds, “Are we done here?”
Peter Coviello’s most recent book is All Tomorrow’s Parties: Sex and the Untimely in Nineteenth-Century America.