[My remarks from the 3 February 2013 commencement of Goddard College’s MFAIA-VT program.]
Good afternoon. My name is Peter Hocking and I’m a member of the faculty of the MFAIA program. On behalf of the graduating students and my colleagues, I have been asked to convene today’s gathering. It is an honor to welcome you to this rite of commencement.
Commencement is a passage from one thing to another. While our enthusiasm for where we are going, for the next thing, for all the possibility of the future is understandable, I believe it would be a mistake to forget or forego those places and relationships that built, and continue to hold, the foundation on which we stand.
To the family and friends who have traveled here to witness your loved one’s graduation, I want to especially offer warm welcome. This afternoon you will hear, from these graduates and their advisors, passionate reflections on learning and meaning, about accomplishment and risk, and even perhaps something about what it means to be transformed through acts of inquiry and discovery. You will hear something of what it is to ask questions of the world and what it means to risk listening deeply to the world’s reply. You will hear about the power of relationships, especially between and among this extraordinary group of graduates, but also in relation to this place. Let me assure you that I, and my colleagues, know that what has transpired here could not have happened without the love, support, and care of those who have assembled here today. I want to thank you for sharing your family with this community. While you may not know it, your wisdom, your love, and your gifts are an indelible part of the community that grows here. Thank you.
To the graduates, I offer my congratulations. The past three days of presentations speak for themselves. You are an amazing group of individuals, and the accomplishments we acknowledge today are well earned.
I was not supposed to be today’s speaker. A few days ago, we learned that the father of our friend and colleague, Rick Benjamin, had died. Rick has asked me to share with you his love and his appreciation for your kindnesses at this time.
Rick recently was named the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island. This is not a surprise to those of us who know him well. In marking Rick’s absence today, as well as his presence in our lives, it seems fitting to open this ceremony with a poem.
WHAT THE LIVING DO by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there. And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up
waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of. It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through
the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off. For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,
I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it. Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.
What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.
But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass, say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep
for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.
What the living do. That yearning… a cherishing so deep… There it is. Something of what we’ve learned here, no?
This poem is a eulogy for the poet’s brother, who died of AIDS. It is plainly about grief. And yet it is — even more — about living.
Three summers ago, meeting some of you, I remember hearing that yearning in your plans and aspirations. Over the past weekend I’ve heard, too, a cherishing so deep. In the process of turning from wanting to knowing, toward cherishing that which we’ve learned or made, we’ve shared some grief, but – I hope — even more joy.
In leaving this place, we again will feel this tension between grief and joy. Tears have been shed and, I suspect, may be shed more in the coming hours. There is no shame in this, no need for embarrassment or apology. We are facing a moment of loss; we will not come together again as we have. We are leaving something behind. Yet we must remember that we proceed with a sense of purpose and confidence that will take us to extraordinary places. Today is commencement; not an ending, but a beginning.
What each of us cherishes about our time here is different. It would be a mistake, though, to think of “here” as this place, geography, or set of buildings. Yes this campus is some bizarre balance of quirky and fabulous, homespun and absurdly beautiful; intimate and rambunctious; but the physical space in which we gather is not all that we cherish. What’s profound is us: you and me, the relationships we’ve built, the time we’ve set aside to consider what matters.
I want to be clear: this is no utopia. We’ve had our quarrels and misunderstandings; we have not always met each other well. This, too, is what the living do. I do hope that we all leave this place understanding that our willingness to witness one another in all our complexity, no matter how joyful or challenging — or both at the same time — is a rare gift.
As you step forward to the next things in your lives I want to ask you, invite you, urge you to consider two things. Maintain the relationships you’ve developed here. Write, call, visit one another. Stay invested in each other’s lives. Carry the stories of your time in this place forward; create new stories together.
I also want to ask you to lead. If you truly cherish something about this place and your time here, I urge you to create opportunities in the world for others to experience what you have experienced. The meaning of our lives is enhanced when we bring our yearning, what we cherish, and what we know into dialogue with the world. Our meaning us only half-made until we share it. You are all makers, and I urge you to go forward and make the world for which you yearn.
Finally, and yes I’m slipping this in, please do not forget this place. Today’s ceremony marks two rites of passage. You are stepping from the role of learner to that of scholar as you receive a Master of Fine Arts degree. You are also stepping from the role of student to that of steward for the future of this institution. The world will benefit from your wisdom, and Goddard College will continue to flourish with your care.
I am honored to stand with you today. Thank you for everything you’ve shared with me. You have my deepest regards as you step forward in your lives.