Professor of English
Kenyon College 2010
Here’s the thing: the world is not going to issue you an engraved invitation to this life.
Commencement Speech Transcript
When I was a student here and had essays to write, I would as often as not end up perched in the corner of classics professor Bill McCulloh’s office in Ascension Hall, or at least on the threshold of his office. Those of you who have taken my classes or who know me will be entirely unsurprised to hear that on these occasions I would often be vastly enthusiastic about whatever I was working on: I’d be talking fast, working wide-eyed, and breathlessly through the nuances of the ideas I was developing. I’d probably be using a lot of hand gestures. Professor McCulloh, as he was to me then, would listen, asking a question now and then but mostly hearing me out. Then, almost without fail, he would give me his best piece of advice, the same one I’ve offered to many of you in one or another of my offices during the past four years: “Keep it simple.” I would start to draw breath, ready to protest. But these ideas are so complicated! How am I supposed to keep it simple when I’m writing about Nabokov, or Shelley, or Yeats, or Dickinson, or Homer? What if I leave something out? What if I miss something? Before I could start vocalizing my protests, he would remind me (though no doubt in fewer and clearer words) that simplicity, which at its best is never simplistic, is sometimes the most difficult, and the most worthy, the aim of all—that it is a challenge of the highest order to follow something through all its depths and contours, to stay with it long enough to trace its textures and recognize its details and plumb its meanings, and then to present it richly, fully, and lucidly to others.
I always ended up trying to follow his advice, and I have tried to follow it again in composing my talk for today, though what I want to talk to you about is nothing less complicated than living, and some of what I want to say I have found difficult to put into words.
I’m deeply grateful to the Class of 2010 for this opportunity to deliver the Baccalaureate address, not just for the honor itself but also because our positions at the end of this year are analogous in a way that has already been given your class, and this occasion, a special place in my life. You are about to receive your bachelors’ degree, an achievement toward which you have been working, in one way or another, for most of your lives. I have just received tenure, an achievement toward which I have been working, in one way or another, for most of your lives. And thus it is that we find ourselves balanced together in a threshold moment, one way of life or mode of being now about to give way to a new but not entirely unrelated one. In my experience, such threshold moments are ideal times for claiming a pause, for actively creating a space of relative quiet within which we can reflect on what is coming to an end and gather strength and courage for what is about to begin. Though I will be speaking—having jettisoned my idea to propose thirty minutes of sitting meditation—it is my hope that this talk might serve as one of those spaces of reflection and of gathering for you. And to that end, I’d like to make a request. If you are holding a phone, smart or otherwise, please set it to silent and put it away, out of your sight. Be here, and only here, for the next half-hour or so. If you start to get bored, find something here to get curious about. Look around you. Check out Kenyon’s only gargoyles. Count the number of different trees you can see from where you are sitting. Observe your child, if you are a parent; observe your sibling, if you’re a brother or a sister; observe our amazing technicolor dream robes, if you run out of other things to look at. But try—especially if checking your phone has, in recent years, become a reflex—to be in just this one place, with just this assembly of people and this one experience. Since you’ve chosen to attend this weekend’s ceremonies in the flesh, try turning your whole mind to them, as well. Let your attention be here.
I’m making this request, in part, because the division of our attention, the fragmentation of our awareness of any given moment in our lives and experience, has become such a cultural and personal commonplace. Distractions are, of course, nothing new. But our tools of distraction are becoming ever more plentiful and portable, and we stand to miss so much if we simply give in to their omnipresence. Every moment we live is filled to the brim—filled beyond the brim, even—with incipient meaning, with sensory data and new thought-stuff, with beauties and curiosities, perplexities and pains and joys. It’s essential that we pay attention, a phrase that suggests both that a debt is owing somewhere and that we have precisely the resource we need in order to meet that debt: our attention, our sight or hearing or touch or taste, the power of our focus and concentration, the honor of our presence in what is unfolding all around us, all of the time.
Here’s the thing: the world is not going to issue you an engraved invitation to this life. Or not another one, anyway. You’ve already received an engraved invitation to this life. You’ve already been asked to attend, with all the meanings that the verb has packed into it. The Oxford English Dictionary lets us know that the verb “attend” made its way into our language from Latin, by way of Old French, and that at its most basic it means “to stretch to”—whether that “stretching to” involves “directing the mind or observant faculties, listening, applying oneself” or “watching over, ministering to, waiting upon, following, or frequenting” or “waiting for, awaiting, or expecting.” To attend is not just to show up in the body; it is also, and in fact was earlier, “to direct the ears, mind, energies to anything.” You know this from your time here: your best days in class, the days when you came out afterward wishing your conversations or lessons could have continued for another hour, were almost certainly those days when you went to a seminar table or a lecture hall or a laboratory ready and willing to stretch, ready and willing to give “earnest direction of the mind, consideration, or regard”—the OED’s first definition of attention-to the texts or problems or questions under investigation, as well as to the people who, in any given class, were your fellow investigators.
Indeed, our primary role in your time at Kenyon has been to help you learn to direct your ears, minds, and energies as richly as possible, and I hope that you’ve learned from us not just how to attend to specific disciplinary bodies of knowledge. I hope that you’ve also learned, whether through explicit instruction or through your observations of what we do when we’re at our best, how and why to keep asking about what you can and should choose as the objects of your attention—and what you want to choose as the objects of your attention. That is, I hope that you’ve learned not only about directing your mind but also about how to think and feel your way around the very practice of directing your mind. And I hope this precisely because now, after four years of having gotten lots and lots of directions from us—and after nearly a lifetime of living by academic calendars, going grading period to grading period, semester to semester, year to year—you’re about to be on your own in a new way, in territory that for most of you is probably largely uncharted.
I know that you are not strangers to the fact that you’re about to leave us. Nor are we strangers to this fact. By now, we’ve all had a lot of time to try to get used to it. That doesn’t make the fact easier to bear, easier to comprehend. You, who have engaged with us, and with each other, in a relatively focused mission—the thorough attainment and conscientious use of ever-greater knowledge—will now disperse into the world, where your missions will be as many and as various as you yourselves are. What lives will you make for yourselves? What pursuits, what passions will you love and honor?
In short: what now?
Well, for one thing: now is a good time to take a deep breath. Now is, in fact, the only time you can take a deep breath. Now is always the only time you can do anything. And that makes now the most important moment of your life. Every single now is the rest of your life. This is true within any individual moment, where what you do expresses who you are and what your purpose is, and it is true within the span of your life, where what you do stems from what you have done and grows toward what you will do.
This truth is not always an easy one. It requires a kind of deep seriousness about this life. It requires exactly the opposite of what you’ve probably been told, and what you may even have told others, from time to time: Don’t take yourself so seriously. Don’t take life so seriously. I want to counter these ideas. You should take yourself seriously. You should take your life seriously. The kind of seriousness I’m talking about isn’t grim or narrow, clench-jawed or defensive or humorless. Instead, my experience has been that there is a kind of spacious and joyful seriousness involved in realizing that this life, this one happening right now, is the one you get and that this body, the one you’re in right now, is the one you get. There is both gravity and relief involved in not seeking to escape who you are, in body and mind and spirit, but instead committing yourself to use the tools and the limits of your being as best you can. Over time, this kind of commitment to your own best being might well require you to adjust important things about the way you live. You may need to turn off your television and your computer and your iPod more often. You may need to leave your phone behind when you go for a walk or when you meet an old friend or a loved one for dinner. You may need to stop spending time with that person, or those people, around whom you become a lesser version of yourself. You may need to sleep more. You may need to start a spiritual practice—or leave a damaging one behind. You may need to see a doctor about that pain you’ve been having in your limbs or in your heart. You may need to go back to that musical instrument you stopped playing in high school because you thought you were no good, but that you’ve been secretly itching to take up again. You may need to write a poem or a story, even if you hear a voice in your head trying to tell you that it could never be published, that no one wants to read you, that you could never have taken a workshop, that you would have been laughed out of the room by all the people who can really do that thing you’ve been burning to try.
You may have to tell that voice to take a hike, because it is, plain and simple, the voice of death. It is the voice that will try to stop you from living the most expansive and capacious and generous life you can imagine. It will offer you the hammer and the coffin nails every time, inviting you to box up your life and put it in the ground early, bit by precious bit. To that voice, do what Nancy Reagan taught my whole generation in the 1980s: Just say no.
Don’t be afraid of your life because you don’t have it figured out yet, here as you are about to leave the Hill. The plain and simple fact of the matter is that you can’t have your life figured out yet—both because you are young and because life doesn’t work that way. Everything cannot be mastered; everything cannot be planned. Early in her simultaneously comforting and challenging book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit hits this idea head-on. “How do you calculate upon the unforeseen?” she asks. “It seems to be an art of recognizing the unforeseen, of keeping your balance amid surprises, of collaborating with chance, of recognizing that there are some essential mysteries in the world and thereby a limit to calculation, to plan, to control. To calculate on the unforeseen is perhaps exactly the paradoxical operation that life most requires of us” (my emphasis, 5-6). Rather than strive to defend ourselves against the unexpected and the unforeseen, Solnit advises that we should “[l]eave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go” (4-5).
In July 1903, a young poet named Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to an even younger poet, Franz Kappus, offering a similar piece of advice about dealing with the uncertain, the unknown, the unresolved:
You are so young [and I should note that though Kappus, at 19, was so young, Rilke himself was only 27 when he wrote this Letter to a Young Poet], so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you…as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. (34-35)
Now, this passage has been so important to my life in the fifteen years since I first read it, back when I was younger than you are now, that I almost wonder why I didn’t read it at my own Baccalaureate ceremony in 1997. I read for the Classics Department that year, and if I remember correctly, Rilke’s exhortation didn’t even cross my mind as a possibility, though at 104 words long it would have come in well under the 125-word limit we readers were given. Bill McCulloh might remember more clearly, though, because of course, it was to him that I turned for help in locating the right words, from the right writer, to encapsulate my experiences in the Humanities Division at Kenyon. We spent a May morning poring over text after text in his tiny office. We were probably drinking Earl Gray. I was probably talking quickly and using a lot of hand gestures, though my mobility would have been limited by the books and papers that surrounded me. I was certainly anxious that the right passage wouldn’t show up in time.
And then there it was, near the end of Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” and it too has been so important to my life that when I was invited to speak at this Baccalaureate, I asked if I could have the passage printed in the program once again. Woolf is writing about Plato’s descriptions of Socrates and his educational methods, and then she drops on us this moment of wisdom, summing up the beauty and the challenge Platonic dialogues offer:
Truth, it seems, is various; Truth is to be pursued with all our faculties. Are we to rule out the amusements, the tendernesses, the frivolities of friendship because we love the truth? Will the truth be quicker found because we stop our ears to music and drink no wine, and sleep instead of talking through the long winter’s night? It is not to the cloistered disciplinarian mortifying himself in solitude that we are to turn, but to the well-sunned nature, the [person] who practices the art of living to the best advantage, so that nothing is stunted but some things are permanently more valuable than others. (33)
I had my passage. It was also, I find now, exactly 104 words long.
Pieces of text like Rilke’s “live the questions” passage and this passage from Woolf proved integral to my life after Kenyon—and remain so in my life back at Kenyon now. They are touchstones for me; they give me a way to test my mettle. (And if you don’t know what a touchstone is, I urge you to use your Kenyon subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary one last time and look it up before you leave.) Texts like these help me continue finding my way and making my life, as I get lost again and again (and again and again). Both of these passages were, for instance, crucial when I realized, sometime around age 26, that I was not going to grow up to live my mother’s life. It was a belated realization, given that she and my father married when they were 21 and 22, respectively, and that by 26 she had had me—whereas I at 26 was single and childless. But it was a startling realization nonetheless, perhaps all the more so because of its belatedness. I was in my fourth year of graduate school. I had recently left a long-term relationship. I was a year away from my first Kenyon reunion, and my classmates were starting to report on their weddings, and even on their babies. Was I doing something wrong? Was it going to be possible to get back on the narrative that I had thought my life was following or was supposed to follow? You’ve probably heard of this narrative: you go to high school; you come to Kenyon; you get a good job or go to grad school; you partner up with the love of your life, whom you may be met at Kenyon; you buy a house somewhere; you maybe have kids; you live on into old age together.
At 26, I was off the narrative. And though I thought that the end of that sentence was going to be “and I’ve never rejoined it,” I realized, as I was writing this talk, that that’s not quite right. I did partner up with the love of my life, which I did meet at Kenyon: I partnered up with the full-bodied, wholehearted, comprehensively loving pursuit of Truth, with the quest to figure out how to not to stunt anything in my life, not to scorn friendship or music or drinking wine and talking through the night—but also how to discern and hold fast to those things that are permanently most valuable in this one life I’ve been given. On the other hand, it is true that I never rejoined “the narrative”—because there isn’t a narrative. There’s not a secret and correct storyline to follow as you grow older. I have serious doubts about whether we actually “grow up” at all: certainly, I know that I haven’t reached a point where I feel as though I have “it” all “figured out” or “worked out.” Nor would I want to reach that point, even if it existed. The figuring out, and the working out, and the growing: those things, those actions, and processes, all taken together, are nothing short of living.
Virginia Woolf can be helpful again here: in the last section of her 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, she has one of her main characters, the painter Lily Briscoe, confronting “the old question…the vast, the general question”: “What is the meaning of life?” “That was all,” Woolf writes, “a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations struck unexpectedly in the dark” (164-65).
What I have now, instead of the illusion I once held of “the narrative,” is a life that is a practice, a practice of the art of living. This practice changes over time: it is not now what it was even at the beginning of this academic year—far less what it was when you all arrived here nearly four years ago. For one thing, I am ever more on the lookout for, ever more receptive to, what Woolf calls “little daily miracles, illuminations struck unexpectedly in the dark.” And in this practice, I am guided by more influences than I could talk about here today, even if I could make explicit what all of them are. Much of my life is, I’m quite certain, the flowering and the fruit of things I don’t even remember having learned from my teachers here at Kenyon. Sometimes, it takes years, even decades, for what we’ve been taught to emerge in us; some of these emergencies come gently and gradually, while others arrive with a suddenness that can shock with its ability to reveal to us things that we didn’t know about ourselves, things that can, for at least a time, even make us utterly strange to ourselves.
This brings me, at long last, to the title of this talk. Those of you who have been trained in the art of close reading will, I hope, have caught the fact that I’ve taken my title from the poem Janae Peters has read for you this afternoon, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” I borrowed this line from Janae’s chosen reading in largest part because Hopkins has been one of my best guides as I’ve built my practice of the art of living; as you surely must know, after four years here, some of our most important influences turn out to be men and women whose mortal lives ended long before ours began. My influences will not be your influences; I am not offering you a reiteration of Hopkins’s presence today in order to suggest that his necessarily will (or should) become as great an influence on your way of being as it has been on mine. I’m returning us to him, here at the end of this address, in part because when I was where you are now, I had never heard of him. I encountered him when I least expected him, and when I most needed him, in a course on Victorian poetry that I audited near the end of graduate school. His poetry was to me then and remains now, an illumination struck in the dark, in particular, because of the magnitude and depth of his attention to the world around him. From Hopkins, we can gain one answer to the implicit question Virginia Woolf poses in “On Not Knowing Greek”: what things are permanently more valuable than others? And how does our paying attention to some things, and not to others, demonstrate to the world what we believe to be valuable? In “Pied Beauty,” we find him seeing in the unusual, the imperfect, the dappled and freckled and fickle and strange, ways to—and reasons to—apprehend and praise the glory of a higher power and a grander order. Hopkins suggests ways that seeing, recognizing, and acknowledging the details of the world around us, can itself be an act of worship, of praise, and gratitude. The things he’s looking at are not, necessarily or obviously, sublime: they’re clouded skies, swimming trout, chestnuts so bright they seem to be on fire, birds’ wings, fields. And they’re human labor—”all trades. Their gear and tackle and trim.” It’s the stuff of the world around him, and of the world around us, that Hopkins is embracing here as revelation, the revelation of a power “whose beauty is past change,” and he’s inviting us to share his sight. In another of his poems, “The Starlight Night,” which he wrote earlier in 1877 than “Pied Beauty,” Hopkins becomes so ecstatic in his seeing that he issues the imperative, “Look!” seven times in fourteen lines, beginning, “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!” (1) and later exhorting us, “Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!” (10).
So, look. The other reason I’m turning your focus back to Hopkins’s poem for a moment here is that it’s going to help me tell you something that feels difficult and even a little risky to say aloud, in this venue, in front of all these people—indeed, on behalf of all these people—but that I feel must be said, and that’s that those of us up here love those of you out there. We’ve taught you everything we could for four years; we’ve taught you everything we can, for now. You will, if you stay in touch with us, learn more from us in years to come, as we will learn more from you. In fact, this will probably happen even if we never hear from one another again: bits of you and your lives are embedded in us and our lives; bits of us and our lives are embedded in you and your lives. We go on together, in some sense, from here on out. And when I say we love you, I don’t mean that we love you because you won major fellowships, or got As from us every time you took our classes, or broke a record on a field or in the pool, or received departmental or collegiate honors (or both), or found your vocation and got into a top graduate school, or scored super-high on the MCAT or the LSAT. I mean that we love you. You who have been here. You who are here. You who will not be here much longer. You, with all your dappled, freckled, fickle existences, your rose-colored moles, and fresh-fire coal falls. You with your bodies that work and that don’t; you with your minds well and ill; you with your confidence and fear and despair and hope, with your laughter and your soul-rending sobs, with your successes and your failures, your high points and you’re low. You. You who are your own invitation to the world and to your own unprecedented, inimitable lives, your lives that will follow no narrative that we could or would set out for you. You: counter, original, spare, strange. We love you, and for as long as you live and we live and this place lives, you have a lifeline to that love, even if we never see you again.
Now, I’ve introduced you to a whole lot of my influences this afternoon. You’ve heard from McCulloh, Solnit, Rilke, Woolf, Hopkins. I could keep them coming. (Some of you know firsthand just how true that is, and just how long I would want to stay up here if we could all stand it.) But I want to finish with my first and best influences, the ones who were my first teachers: my parents, who are here today with my beloved younger brother. Being about to retire, they’re on the brink of their new lives, and even if you haven’t met them, I hope that it will somehow help you to know that they, too, are heading off into the unknown with you (graduates) and me (newly tenured). For nearly all my life, my mother has been a quilter. She has pierced me new quilts at each of the major turning points in my life, and every night I fall asleep wrapped in her life’s practice, covered by tangible manifestations of her grand and splendid love, manifestations that, though very beautiful, represent barely the tiniest fraction of that love. For all of my life, my father has been a maker of things, and he has used his gifts for designing and building to craft me a fuller, happier, more curious life than I could have had as anyone else’s daughter.
My parents have also both, over the years, modeled for me how to tell other people what to do—or, put more realistically, how to help others try to figure out what to do. Every one of you to whom I’m ever said, “What you should do is…” or “What you could do is…”: that was my mother speaking through me, as I probably let you know even at the time. And it’s along my father’s lines that I’m going to end this talk.
Last summer, as I packed up my apartment and prepared to move, I kept finding the notes and mission statements and meditations my father has written up and given me over the years. Of these various slips of paper, which I’ve finally collected into one place, my two favorites are to-do lists. He wrote one of them for me when I was a Kenyon sophomore, home for October Break, exhausted by a messy breakup and an overload of courses. This first list is dated October 4, 1994:
1. Think highly of yourself.
2. Don’t suffer fools lightly.
3. Give your love to people who appreciate it.
4. Make yourself proud; no one else matters.
5. Be responsible for your life.
7. Live your dream.
He signed it, “I love you. Papa.”
The second list is dated June 6; he wrote it for me in 1998, when I was home for a visit after my first year in grad school. I was sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mother when he walked in and handed it to me. It’s on a sheet of “Things to Do” paper, preprinted with numbered lines and boxes for checking off tasks, and he added my name so that it’s labeled “Sarah’s Things to Do, 6/6”:
1. Be honest.
2. Be fair.
3. Love your mama.
4. Kiss the dog.
5. Take responsibility.
Now, in addition to the fact that these thirteen suggestions—particularly the repeated one about taking responsibility for your life—strike me as good pieces of advice anyway, I’ve read them to you because I want to leave you with a list of my own. I hope that it’s even half as helpful for you as my father’s to-do lists have been for me.
What you should do is:
1. Take your life seriously.
2. Live the questions.
4. Get lost.
5. Don’t be afraid.
And last, but certainly not least:
6. Keep it simple.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Major Works. Ed. Catherine Phillips. 1986. Oxford and New York: OUP, 2002. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. 1984. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. London: Viking-Penguin, 2005. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. “On Not Knowing Greek.” The Common Reader. 1925. New York: Harvest Harcourt, 1984. 23-38. Print.
Source: Praveen Shanbhag, Founder of Name-Coach.com