Accept a Moment

Here is the commencement address I gave at my school this week with a few changes to avoid real names.  If you are a regular reader here, you may notice some familiar themes (and prose):

Standing here, I’m thinking of the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Those of you who have read the book know Billy Pilgrim finds himself transported bodily to his past and future.  He is suddenly serenely drowning in a pool at the Illium, New York YMCA, making love to Montana Wildhack in a zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore, weeping over an injured horse after the allies’ firebombing of Dresden.

Then he’s back again.

My affliction is more metaphoric.  I can’t help seeing this moment through other moments—my own senior year, graduations of students I’ve taught in the last 27 years, classes you’ve been in.

And, because I’m a parent of a senior, I also see other moments—saying goodbye on the first day of pre-school, listening to hurried explanations of “what I learned today” or watching, as every parent does, even when my child didn’t know I was watching at all… and was probably busy ignoring me.

Vonnegut’s surreal approach, it turns out, is real.  We suddenly find ourselves in memories and can’t recall how we arrived there.

As Billy Pilgrim discovers, many of these moments are absurd. Look at us now—this auspicious occasion is more than a little strange.  Were I Billy Pilgrim arriving here, I might wonder… why am I wearing a mu mu?  What is this limp, multi-colored hula hoop around my neck?  Why are you wearing such silly hats?  Those tails are in the wrong place. How come—as I’m speaking to you—you are staring at the back of my head?

Calling this occasion “commencement” is absurd too.  You might be thinking about endings.  No more dozing on the senior couch or discussing the ridiculous test-slash-quiz-slash-quest-slash-assessment-slash-Challenge Assignment you just endured.  No more leaving mystery objects in classmates’ mailboxes, filming a banner, or wondering when someone will suddenly stand up and say “Now shut the barn door, are you saying…” You won’t be slipping into gathering late anymore—next year, no one will know what a “Gathering” is.  Fishbowl will return to being a noun, and you will never, never, never have to explain the school’s schedule again.

Your future classmates will thank you if you don’t.

You may already have moved on.  We are all so unstuck in time, we are always moving on.

One moment I can’t return to is my own high school graduation.  I didn’t go.  My sister was getting married the same weekend five states away.  I could have made it back for the ceremony, but that part of my life seemed done.  I thought, “I’m way too cool for that falderal” and I told myself, “Isn’t it mostly for parents anyway?”

Well, I’m parent now, and I’ve decided that last part…. is true.  We are immeasurably and irrationally proud of you.  We need this moment… so get over it.

The older we get, the more we want to live in moments like this one.  They’re special even if we manufacture them.

For all this ceremony’s absurdities, it’s not absurd to make you pause, look at one another and be immeasurably and irrationally proud of yourselves, to say goodbye to teachers you’re leaving behind, especially the teachers who are leaving us all behind.

Books and movies linger on these moments—just before the bat hits the ball, or the score ignites the crowd, or the crowd realizes what magic it has just witnessed.

We don’t get to do what books and movies do.  We’d like to, but can’t.

Last fall, I went to Peoria with the Cross Country team for the state finals.  The girls and boys teams had dwindled to ten runners and only eight would stand at the start line of the two races.  Everyone received Coach’s words before the start—and, as usual, they were good, rousing words—but I wanted even more.  We could have had a bigger moment.  We should have eyed each other and said, “Look at us.” We should have remembered all the athletes who weren’t there but who pushed the ones remaining to run better than they ever thought possible.  We should have said, “This moment only arrives once.”

But someone was wondering if the computer chip was secured correctly, and someone was sick of being photographed, and someone was worried whether that visit to the port-o-let was ill-timed and someone else wondered if it was too hot or too early or too scary.

Someone wanted it over.

Because that’s how most of us live—with “what’s next?” on our lips.

So, absurd as it is, we’re holding you hostage.  Those silly hats—they’re for pinning you down.  For once, you have no laptops, blackberries, iPods, or other electronica to divert you.

I hope.

Welcome to monotasking—the sort that means drinking in the present, of being spontaneous, free of self-consciousness, without judgment, open to influence.

Some of you already know that pleasure from reading.  Books offer complete immersion in moments.  The best ones give us precious echoes of our own experience.  They give us more moments that make us feel less alone.  Though the author manufactured them, they tell us what’s true.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau said, “When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence.”

Seniors, if I had a magic wand, I wouldn’t waste it on any accio to material success.  I’d give you pleasure in this moment—and every moment.  I’d give you more reasons to come unstuck in time.  I’d focus on every moment as we have this one.

Our era is skilled at judgment.  People read a page and declare a book “crap” or reject a task as dumb even before undertaking it.  We have judgment as a constant companion, evaluating each moment—and each other—until everything fractures into what it is and how we judge its worth.

Instead of enjoying each other—really being with one another—we text, we face…book.  We hurry onto our next notification or message.

But look at us now. Right now.  Your last homework is to think of a moment you’d like to remember forever… something you couldn’t tweet or text.

Because, more than simply filling your head with stuff, your teachers wanted to create moments to return to…

Because soon you’ll move on…

But before you go, I have one last seemingly random, off-the-subject story that turns out to be quite instructive:

I worked for the University Press in college.  My job was pretty uninteresting—I put books in boxes, sent bills, and did some quite crude accounting—but my boss had placed his faith in me, and that meant a lot. I took the job not because I loved bubble wrap, but because of Professor J. I could mention few subjects he hadn’t read something about, but he didn’t show off his knowledge.  He had a wry smile for undergraduate opinions he’d heard a million times and listened attentively as I rattled on about everything and anything.  I loved our messy basement office and every moment I spent there.

But I got behind.  Professor J was hardly a taskmaster.  He trusted me to keep up with orders and I didn’t always fulfill his trust in timely fashion, so I’d go in on a Saturday or Sunday to complete orders.  I didn’t want my boss to know.

One Sunday in the winter of my senior year, I let myself into the office to work.  My attention was elsewhere—I’d had a tough conversation with my dad the night before, and, on the desk in my apartment were the dates for GREs and LSATs, applications to graduate school, and handouts from the placement office about on-campus interviews.

It had dawned on me that the school was going to make me graduate, and I was upset—upset because I loved school, because being a student felt like the only thing I did well.

As I wrapped books and sealed packages, I began to think about how little I knew about what was outside this place I loved, what was next, who I was.  And I became more emotional, and, perhaps because I was sleep deprived or miffed about getting behind, or maybe because I was visited by the murky spirit of that senior winter, I began to cry.

Not sobbing or weeping or throwing-myself-to-the-floor-and-gnashing-my-teeth crying, but water, a lot of water was leaking from my eyes —we’re 60 % water, after all.  And I was in this state, crying and packing books, mailing my tears to various libraries and bookstores all over the country—and internationally—when I heard the lock of the door turn.

And there was Professor J, arriving to pick something up, clearly not expecting a momentarily leaky undergraduate flinging books. I wiped my eyes quickly, but he saw me, and he stopped.  He looked at me—the most complete eye contact you can imagine—soul to soul—and then came the moment I want to share with you.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” he asked.

I actually don’t like tea much, but I understood, at that instant, that the answer was “yes.”

Seniors, maybe you want to know what we discussed—about the future, about how you know who you are, about how to find the sort of life where it feels okay to leak unexpectedly.  We did talk about those things… but the truth is, I don’t remember any of it.

I remember how sweet the honey in the tea was, how the cup was so warm I dared not keep it in my hands or do more than sip it.  I remember the scent of bergamot and how the chair creaked when I shifted.

Most of all I remember how kind he was, how he let silences lie, how he told me, without telling me, that he’d been where I was and knew how much that odd moment mattered.

Over the last few years, you might have a moment like that to recall, a moment when you realized that, sometimes, we need to stop our restless movement and show gratitude for every moment… including this artificial, manufactured, but very real expression of our love for you.

I hope so. Your parents, your teachers, your friends might be hoping the same—we don’t want time to sweep you away.  It will, but while you are here and we are here, let’s stop and love this pomp and circumstance… before you leave us to find more moments to love.

Thank you for sharing so many nice seconds, minutes, and hours with us, thank you for giving us this event to celebrate, for giving us this NOW, a good reason to come unstuck in time… Godspeed class of 20-10.

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2 Comments

Filed under Buddhism, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Humanities, Kurt Vonnegut, life, Meditations, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work

2 responses to “Accept a Moment

  1. O my.
    Well done.
    I hope there were cheers.

    I think people were appreciative–I’m sure I wasn’t saying anything new, but my heart was in it. And I hope the seniors and their parents and my colleagues at least felt that.

    Thanks for your comment!

  2. Natalie Greenberg

    David, I so enjoyed reading this commencement speech. You took me back to the age of 16–once again. At the age of 82 I go back every day to many special moments in my life, remembering in great detail, moments that as a young person I raced through faster than a speeding bullet. I think many young people do not live in that moment and cherish it as they should. That, however, will change as they realize as they approach their advanced age how much they’ve slowed down with much more quiet time at hand. It is then that they most often look back at their lives and relive many of the special and often remarkable things they’ve accomplished. I’ve done this for many years now and it is these memories and the shelves of innumerable photograph albums that make me truly understand how important and wonderful each day of my life has been. One can hope that the students will get your message before they are too old. My dear father tried to tell me that life goes by so fast, but he was forty-five years old at that time and I did not get the message right away. After all, the age of forty-five years ago was considered “old” and it was going to be a very long time before I turned forty-five. The joke, of course, was on me.

    Thank you for sharing you commencement speech with me. Have some fun with your family before school starts again. I hope you are all enjoying Chicago. I think it’s a very special city. Please convey my congratulations to your son on his graduation and his acceptance to Columbia. I’m sure he’s excited at going there and I know he will enjoy living in New York. Regards to you all. Natalie

    Natalie, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I know exactly what you are talking about–sometimes I feel my students aren’t ready for what I want to tell them, that I’d be better off waiting for a “teachable moment.” Unfortunately, those teachable moments may not arrive for a while… and I’m impatient.

    To me, the message to slow down and enjoy the moment seems especially relevant now. With all the technological amusements and distractions available to us, we seem to be forgetting how to simply be.

    I hope you are well, and thanks again for your comments. They mean a lot to me. —David

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