Don’t Panic is the phrase written on the back of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in the book series of the same name. At least, that’s what I understand from the movie because I’ve never read the books, and though people seem to agree the movie is good they also agree the books are better. Yesterday was my last class of any kind–at least for now–and Monday I will turn in the keys to my cushy university job. Then I’ll be shot out into space with nothing but a towel, a paucity of oxygen and a vague idea of a story that I hope I eventually get around to reading, because I think it might be a good one.
Here is a monkey carved out of a coconut. At least I think it’s a monkey. I have to admit I’ve never really seen a monkey that looked like that. It guards the living room (and the psychedelic tissue paper beside it) from the speaker it sits on, a totem to… something. It has a slot for coins, making it a Monkey Bank, though I’ve never put any money in it. Also, it’s from Hawaii.
My sister Sara gave this to me at Christmas some years ago, though the exact when eludes me. All I remember for sure is that it was wrapped in plastic and I broke the little hat off almost immediately. I’ve never been to Hawaii, but Sara has. More than once if I’m not mistaken. To be honest she’s been fortunate enough to go on many trips to many amazing places in the past several years. So many stories of so many adventures I hope one day to hear.
Every day the Coconut Monkey mocks me in my beat up recliner. “I have seen shores that you thought only existed in postcards,” he says. “And instead of getting off your ass to experience them yourself, you stare at me as if I’m supposed to let you in on some sort of grand secret about the whole thing.” Why is it when I anthropomorphize my household objects they’re always such smart asses?
Two days ago my sister had her last day of high school, and today I’m driving down to watch her graduate. In the fall the promise of new adventures at Evergreen awaits her, finally, and I couldn’t be happier for her. With Sara I don’t worry much. She’s been disarming me with beyond-her-age wisdom since before I left for college ten years ago. She’s like those penny-flattening machines at tourist traps. Sometimes she seems to take in the whole world at once, and two seconds later she’s personalized it, stamped it with her own impression, and handed it back to you. The coins you get back may not be legal tender anymore, but these exchanges always have the best payoff anyway.
Though I don’t worry about what the future holds for her, I know she does, so I find myself wishing I had some grand secret about the whole thing to give her, preferably something that didn’t sound like it came directly from a bad commencement speech. I wish I could return the Monkey Bank back to her, full of 10 years’ worth of my experiences, mistakes, and (most importantly) victories, so that perhaps she can go a little more confidently into the world than I did.
But I also remember being 18, and I know that advice was only worth so much back then, when I would listen to advice, but somewhere in the back of my head I knew I was destined to make many of the same mistakes anyway. And though I don’t think it should be any other way, is “don’t pay too much attention to the advice of your elders” my best advice to my sister? Is that the advice I would give as a commencement speaker to a class of eager students?
Sara, as you prepare to graduate today, I want to tell you the thing I like to call “The One Thing I Wish Someone Had Told Me,” though most likely someone did and I just wasn’t listening. Know that every victory you ever have is as important as you think it should be, and that it’s always worth celebrating. Always. Know that the day after the celebration you’ll look around and the thing you’ve put so much energy into for so long is gone, and you’re going to realize you miss it (yes, even if that thing is high school). Know that we always miss the things we’ve gotten used to, even the annoying things.
Know that in transitional moments you’ll be beside yourself, thinking that you’re not doing enough even though you’ll have no idea what you should be doing, and that you’re going to feel very nervous about whatever’s coming next. Know that it’s okay to not really know what’s coming next, and that things are always different than how you expected them to be, and that that’s okay too.
Know that I’m telling you all of this because I need to tell myself too. Know that I’ve been sitting in my recliner for the past month, staring at the Monkey Bank and feeling totally useless. Know that in the past 10 years this is at least the fourth time I’ve felt this way, but only the first time I’ve ever expected it, and definitely the first time I’ve ever looked forward to it. Know that my writing this letter is the first piece of writing I’ve been excited about in a month.
Know that feeling uncertain is always temporary, that these are simply the down moments between the adventures. The past few years have been a great adventure for both of us, and it’s time to rest. And though you should be resting, know that you’re going to feel restless, but know also that all this restlessness will eventually propel you towards your next great adventure, and that each adventure will be more epic than the last, because life experiences have an amazing way of building off each other.
Know that your own personalized “One Thing I Wish Someone Had Told Me” you can only learn for yourself, and that when you learn it you will likely interpret the experience as failure at first. I did with mine.
Most importantly then, know that it’s not. It’s simply wisdom for the Monkey Bank, legal tender for all the adventures still to come.
Congratulations Sara, and enjoy the downtime this summer. You’ve earned it.
Oh yeah, and don’t panic.