“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Part II, Day 39: Cap and Gown

Today the students are graduating, and I'll be there in a rental gown, one of the random extras the patient women in the dean's office ordered for stragglers like me who were not tuned into e-mail when the announcement came that it was time to commit to commencement.  My concern is the cap.  When it's too big I have to hope I'll find enough bobby pins to hold it in place, and even then I'll walk like a little girl in her mother's big shoes, trying not to wobble too much.

I've gotten close to many of the students receiving diplomas today.  Beyond the relationships we developed in the classroom, some have traveled with me to France and India (two have done both) and others have simply visited me in my office a lot over the years, gone on walks in the woods with Zoe and me, and shared much of their lives in conversation, if not on the page.  When I talk to them, I can still see the just-out-of-high school kid who told me he or she wanted to study in Kenya, or write music and poetry, or forage each spring for wild leeks and each autumn for wild apples in the North Country as a way to have a "sane life" while still being a busy student living inside four walls.  M. said the other day, "I remember when I was a freshman and we talked about me making a documentary film someday about the ugly side of college life."  And instead, she made a documentary film about the indigenous people in Shaktoolik, Alaska facing the perils of climate change.  She brought her eye for social criticism to tackle one of the most serious challenges of our century, and in the meantime, developed a knowledge base in environmental studies and a set of tools and skills she will bring to the next chapter of her life, including a hard-won confidence.

The mother in my novel tells her daughter that "everyone we've ever been is still in our bodies, walking along, admiring the view."  I think of this sometimes on days like this, when the students who march to the podium to receive their degrees--many of them giddy, elated--will still be recognizably the kids who skidded around corners on skateboards or hung upside-down from backyard tree branches or said when they were five that they wanted to grow up to be a fire fighter or teacher or rock star or veterinarian.  And when some of them shake our college president's hand I'll also see a glimmer of the peace-worker, parent, technocrat, gardener, artist, teacher, citizen they will become.

My ace tech assistant, Shelley, designed this blog to communicate the idea that the puppy that was Zoe when I first met her in the pound is looking at the mature dog she would become in her winter.  They face each other across a field of snow.  They are companions, litter mates, mother and daughter, teacher and baby student at once.

Not everyone graduating today is going to have an easy time of things.  Some already have illness in the family, money woes, and romantic relationships in flux.  These young people will have to locate their mature future selves a little sooner than the others will in order to become the "administrator[s] of [their] own rescue," in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert.  Near the end of Eat, Pray Love she writes:
"[Buddhists] say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time.  Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree.  Everybody can see that.  But only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well--the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity.  In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born.
I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.  I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it was me--I mean, this happy and balanced me, who is now dozing on the deck of this small Indonesian fishing boat--who pulled the other, younger, more confused and struggling me forward during all those hard years.  The younger me was the acorn full of potential, but it was the older me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time: 'Yes-Grow! Change!  Evolve!  Come and meet me here, where I already exist in wholeness and maturity!  I need you to grow into me.'"
I like the idea that our future self is cheering on the younger one, hoping that seedling gets through the rough seasons to become a person who is "liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other" than his or herself.  I like the idea that the older self and the young one are working together as a team.

Today I'll be hiding in a forest of mature trees when the young oaks arrive.  Or, to switch to my other metaphor for today's post, I'll be in my pack of graying canines when these keen, curious, savvy three-year-old dogs prance up, at the height of their athleticism and vigor, to receive their prize ribbons.  As they charge through another of life's portals, I'll be there with my funky too big robe and slip-sliding cap cheering them on.

Namaste.  And congratulations today and all this month to graduates and their families and the teachers who helped them, here and everywhere.

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