To Be Happy in the Revel of Memory

This is from the faculty address I gave recently at the Archer School for Girls 2006 Commencement:

Graduates -- such a great pleasure watching you grow and distinguish yourselves over the last six years. It is one of the great gifts for teachers, to witness the developing themes and textures in your character and abilities. You have made your mark here, and we owe you thanks. Personally, I listen more intently, argue with more passion, am a better storyteller, and am certainly a more amused and joyful person for knowing you all.

So, a little story for you as, perhaps, expected. The impetus, the germ for this speech came to me while sitting inside the Disney Concert Hall recently, that reflecting twisted flower downtown. I sat next to my wife, Liz (Ms. Ganem) listening to Beethoven's 7th symphony, particularly the middle of the second movement, this bulging rich buildup. Bum da um. Bum da um. Bum ba dum bum da bum. Something like that. I had my hand on Liz's big belly, attentive to any movements, musing whether the kid in there was getting this stuff, the Beethoven, storing it away in a quickly developing temporal lobe.

So, strangely, I'm sitting next to Liz imagining the musical genius in training, and I notice myself there in the row just in front of us, sitting beside my mother. I'm slump shouldered, twelve years old, reading a book -- some elven fantasy. Every weekend my mother would smuggle in books to the symphony in her purse, much to my father's chagrin. He had a more concerted vision of an attentive, thoughtful child. A musical genius in training, perhaps.

So, present hand on the belly, staring at my past, my blissful twelve-year-old reading self who catches my eye amidst a page turn, and I have this internal sense, like a clear thin bell inside my head beyond the Beethoven. Happiness. I am happy. I will be happy. I am caught inside this triangle, the angles of memory and future and present all opening to me. And this is it, of course, what I want to say to you, what I have seen and see in you, and what I hope for you.

I know that happiness has been the true, if sometimes hidden, goal of your labors here, your questioning, your choice of friends, of the acts and indulgences of your lives. I have seen your happiness focused on how things actually are, rather than how they look or seem. I have seen you strive for meaning in Atwood, float leisurely down the Mississippi with Finn, rejoice in the words diaphanous, illimitable, cabal. I have witnessed you romancing Ovid and chatting up Catullus. You've taken pleasure in a drill press, in fixing a drive train, throwing clay, throwing bludgers, playing old and playing young, writing up neighbors, writing down anger, fiddling with words, becoming poets, demanding storytime, chanting under banners, feinting left and going right, curving a ball to the top left corner, and finding somewhat inappropriate glee in cross dressing your male teachers...then filming this oddity.

I believe that at your best you also get the way lasting delight is gained by both holding onto childhood and grounding your happiness in the happiness of others. This is certainly what my mother offered me with those books at Orchestra Hall. She knew what I needed and she enjoyed it. Holding onto childhood and grounding your happiness in others is idealism. If I may say so, I believe it's the kind of idea this school was founded on, and you'll need to train that idealism for endurance in the next 4 years -- we need you acting on it.

I do think you have typified action here at school. You are political beings in my mind, in the best sense of that word political -- contributors, with convictions spread in protests, in heady conversations; you have given time and raised money for victims of calamity, built homes, exposed your peers to your experiences in hopes of gaining compatriots in change. You talked to younger students, engaged them, taught them, gave comfort. As one eighth grader said in a town hall meeting, because one of you seniors reached out to a shy and fearful girl on the bus, that girl now reaches out to shy and fearful girls.

Most of all, I see your shared happiness in your friendships, those alchemical bonds we forge and reforge. You have exceptional friendships -- don't forget what you owe one another, what you can give. That we are sometimes tricked or trick ourselves into moments of dread and doubt is a certainty, but friends are the certain universal remedy.

Before I close I'd like to read some lines from a poem that seems to underscore this all in my mind. It's called Song of Childhood -- Leid Vom Kindsein by Peter Handke. He's Austrian. I'll read a little in German to give you a taste.

Leid Vom Kindsein by Peter Handke Als das Kind Kind war,

ging es mit hängenden Armen,

wollte der Bach sei ein Fluß,

der Fluß sei ein Strom,

und diese Pfütze das Meer.

Als das Kind Kind war,

war es die Zeit der folgenden Fragen:

Warum bin ich ich und warum nicht du?

Warum bin ich hier und warum nicht dort?

Song of Childhood

When the child was a child

It walked with its arms swinging,

wanted the brook to be a river,

the river to be a torrent,

and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,

It was the time for these questions:

Why am I me, and why not you?

Why am I here, and why not there?

When did time begin, and where does space end?

When the child was a child,

Berries filled its hand as only berries do,

and do even now,

Fresh walnuts made its tongue raw,

and do even now,

It reached for cherries in topmost branches of trees

with an elation it still has today

When the child was a child,

It threw a stick like a lance against a tree,

And it quivers there still today.

So, Graduates, I wish for you to be happy in the revel of memory (as this day will surely be for you), happy in your musings and imaginings toward future hopes, and most assuredly happy in the shared pleasures of your present.

Take pride in your place up here at the culmination of Archer's 10th year. Your strength and beauty and happiness reflect us well. Great good luck to you. Thank you. Peace.

Lines from the poem "Leid Vom Kindsein" from Wim Wender's website.