Professor Boruch to graduates
August 3, 2013
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - First—of course of course and most important of all—cheers and cheers to you, the graduates! This is a thrilling day, and completely yours. Proof: we're all dressed up in these grave and funny outfits to mark your success, this occasion of great and happy change. I should be wearing my Janus mask too--Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways whose double face looks one way into the future, and another way, to the past. He isn't confused or worried, just curious, and thoughtful. You finish as you commence, and this is the delicious moment of your passage.
So allow yourself a little time travel. Soon this place will be that place, back there, and your visits here 10, 20, 30 years from now will startle you—the hallways of the buildings you knew so well will seem narrow, the ceilings lower, the students unthinkably young, everything so strange, almost surreal. You will be moved by the grief in that, and the wonder of ever having been so young yourself, that your years here were the occasion of a transformation you weren't quite aware was even happening when you were in the sweet, bewildering thick of it. And for those of you older, who came to begin or continue your education, in future visits this place will become the site of your daring and deliberation, and the great breath of relief and triumph in earning this degree. How the past morphs into the years to come can be both lovely and unsettling.
Along those lines are more immediate matters to consider. My one-of-a-kind, most wonderful dentist, for instance, Bill Risk (Purdue, 1959!) who has practiced many decades now in Lafayette, as did his father and uncle before him. I love our chats when I am trapped in his chair with a little paper bib clipped around my neck. He's a superb conversationalist, as wild as his name, though I have to admit, it's hard to get a word in edgewise when he's packed my mouth with cotton and a dental dam, and I can only mumble enthusiastically in response. No matter. Dr. Risk is rich with stories, and my favorite orbits around a little cardboard suitcase.
It seems that every summer, as children, he and his older brother were packed off from Lafayette to the state of Maine by train, to spend several weeks at a camp owned by their Uncle Clarence. Yet Dr. Risk's story begins much earlier. Sight-unseen, in 1928, a naturalist was hired to work at the camp, a 20-year-old who would continue to come by train too, summer after summer, his eye and ear alert to the woods. The first time though, Uncle Clarence was late in picking up his new staff member at the town depot, arriving a few minutes after the train had come and gone. He looked around and spotted a young man sitting stiffly on a bench, a small cardboard suitcase beside him.
"But get this," Dr. Risk said to me, "that young man was…." And here he paused, leaning closer—“Guess!"
I raised my eyebrows, making a choked, muffled sound to mean how would I know? Come on, Dr. Risk, tell me already!
"ROGER TORY PETERSON!" he stage-whispered, very loud.
Now, I'm a birder, meaning I watch birds and am slowly learning their songs. And to a birder or to anyone even vaguely smitten with the natural world, this guy, Roger Tory Peterson—the writer of so many excellent guides to that world—is legend, hero, a saint, of sorts. He actually invented the modern go-to of that genre.
And if you don't believe me," Dr. Risk continued, practically singing now, "check your Peterson guide. Uncle Clarence is THERE, right on the dedication page!"
Going home, I did, I checked my old, beloved bird books. And he's right—Clarence Allen is warmly thanked on that page, edition after edition. Need I say that it delights me, Dr. Risk's joy in repeating this story? But a poignant detail continues to haunt, and begins to mean in larger ways, and in that lies the lasting power--and poetry--of image. That little cardboard suitcase. Which is pretty much all he had, the young man waiting at that town's tiny depot, on the verge of the remarkable fate that would befall him, however long it would take.
And here is where I welcome the 19th century British poet John Keats to this party, decent company for all of us. He died young, at 25, ravaged by the scourge totally mystifying in his era, tuberculosis, though he'd done a lot by then: hiked England and Scotland, fell in love, studied medicine for several years. It was terrible, the training required of doctors-to-be in the early 1800s, his assisting in surgeries before anesthesia, or any way to disinfect wounds; day after day his patients in agony, crying out as he cut into skin and muscle, vein and artery, legs going dark with gangrene. The dissection lab in his medical school at London's Guy's Hospital closed down in summer, given its unbearable stench.
But Keats had options, other gifts in his cardboard suitcase. One was his passion for literature and language. Which is to say, his education—both his formal schooling and what he read on his own—allowed him, in the parlance of our time and place, a kind of "second major." Or just say his serious heart-and-bone- chilling work as an apprentice-physician deepened his thought and sense and shook him to the core, which turned out to be absolutely crucial to his writing. A small riff from his "Ode to a Nightingale" proves that, where the poet sets his dream of "song" and "mirth," his plea for "a beaker full of the warm South" against what clearly is drawn from his crushing experience of hospital life-- "the weariness, the fever, and the fret/Here, where men sit and hear each other groan… "Note to self then, and to all of you: everything matters! Get curious. Let things stick to you. You never know where your life will lead, to what discoveries of self and world.
Thus the poems John Keats left behind, and his remarkable correspondence too. In one of those letters, he found this key to the universe, something he called "negative capability," a willful turn of mind he claimed Shakespeare had, that made a person "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…. "To hover for a while amid seeming contradictions, to live comfortably with chaos and conflict, part wary of everything, part considering all sides--that's the trick perhaps, to savor such troubling moments as fruitful, a useful way to begin to understand what happens as the years mount up and weigh us down. William Blake, another English poet, had a similar thought that's often quoted, his "without contraries there is no progression"—which takes us a little farther, directly toward a goal, I suppose, into "progression," the next step. But it's Keats who honors the "beginner's mind," a point of wonder and humility out of which genuine engagement grows. Keep alert to what's opposite, and surprising. At the very least you will never be bored.
Because here's the rewarding, demanding part of this whole business of the future: most education is self-education. You're not done, I'm not done. But that's good news. It isn't simply the amassing of facts and figures. It's a habit of thought and feeling and being, of opening and questioning and including. And that's what Purdue has offered you. Keep doing it! Give it time. The growth of the imagination is a life-long trust. Here's the truth: imagination—it’s not artsy-light or frivolous or mere frosting on the cake. Though it must be at the heart of genius, it's better than that--it's bottom-line, deep down, grubby day after day practical.
Case in point: I listened once as Chicago artist Susanna Coffey described a taxi ride she took in that city. Suddenly some crazy driver peeled out of an alley, nearly colliding and ripping through her passenger door. I said nearly. The cabbie hit the brakes and swerved safely, and all was well. And did he blurt out what most of us would have? A loud Geez! and What a jerk! No. After a minute, she heard him say quietly, through clenched teeth: that guy has no imagination. There it is then: imagination as a key to empathy, to seeing through to possibilities beyond conclusion, to not cracking up your car.
I imagine and hope for you a few things other than your getting back in one piece today, on your drive home. For one, money must be made--necessary now, and probably forever--but when you love what you do, and believe in something larger than your own gain, you actually forget about that. Do you know what that's called? Freedom. As for the computer, the TV: beware. But you already get that—right – how they can lobotomize you, how the cheapest elements of our culture can flash from those screens. We're all susceptible, believe me. Just be braver than your handheld; turn it off and talk to people, face to face. And in the years to come, there's always John Keats to channel on occasion or a lot, his holding back at first, his light touch welcoming doubt and mystery and uncertainty to help you figure your way through the world. Part of that means continuing to read good stuff—widely and with hunger, beyond your usual interests and take on things.
The great subjects of poetry are pretty simple: death, love, time, knowledge, beauty. They don't need much help coming down to us, playing out in the familiar, the sweet ordinary. Think about route 65 or 231, say, driving through Indiana, passing the vast realms of soybeans and corn, distant houses, small towns whose names on signs puzzle or charm. And the hay you see, bundled up after harvest, huge rolls of it scattered in the fields: I love the poet Jane Kenyon's lines about that. "I wish you would look at the hay," she wrote, "the beautiful, sane and solid bales of hay." Note that rare and sacred word: sane. Take that with you, in your cardboard suitcase.
We'll all be under the sod in a hundred years. Relish your life. So what if most of our days turn in their familiar orbit of wake and work and sleep, our habits, all the little compelling weirdnesses that absorb us. That's solace, and good grounding. But there's also the sight of Earth from afar, from the astronaut's cockpit window. Your mission—should you choose to accept it—is to make peace and honest trouble between those separate worlds until what is small looms large, and what is large opens to us, eye-level, fully human.