Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”

 

 

Light

Some days are armed with the power of transformation–arriving as ordinary as any other yet abounding with redemptive reminders that distract our gaze from its habitual focus. Some days extinguish the anguish of negativity, doubt, and worry that heavy the burden we shoulder and we walk into a new day renewed.

It has been a difficult few months and my boots have become weighty. I trudge from day to day (with a smile across my face, regardless)  knowing that this sensation, this looming shadow is ephemeral in nature. It is not the end. There will be more. There will be goodness. There is still love. But sometimes, it can be hard to keep my eyes above the waves. Sometimes, it feels easier just to give in to the shadow, to shroud the possibilities of positivity in the obscurity and confusion of doubt.

Today, though, there was a moment that changed all of that. Today was quite possibly the most perfect Jazz Fest day one could experience–the weather, as friendly and laid back as the people, welcomed us serenely as we strolled from stage to stage and from food stand to food stand. It was living into this day, however, rather than simply letting it happen to me that has reformed my vision, my heart, my head. Tonight, I am new. I am ready. I am grateful. Tomorrow will be met with fresh perspective.

This shift ignited with a moment I’ve witnessed countless times in my Jazz Fest experience…the moment when the Economy Hall Jazz tent erupts from seated passivity into the undulating zeal of a Second Line. They marched; they strutted; they sashayed; they paraded; they danced. Some with eyes closed, others with eyes wide; there were smiles stretched wide, yet some others with brows furrowed as music overwhelmed their being; some with open hands waving high, others clasping an umbrella or napkin or hat for flair. I’ve come to expect this scene–honestly, if it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t feel like Jazz Fest at all. Yet today, somehow it appeared differently to me.

Today, the people became the poem—each moving individual a unique line in a much larger piece, creating, contributing to the rhythm of the whole, breathing life into its body. Each moving individual providing some sort of punctuation to guide the reading–a full stop in mid motion for one, a quick pause for another and some, whose fluid movements never ceased, overflowed their line and rolled right to the next. Enjambment made physical. Yet, all together, they composed a singular poem…proverbial poetry in motion…and it was stunning.

As I watched this diverse group parade, I considered that on any given day these people would have absolutely no reason to stand next to each other let alone dance together. These people were so visibly varied that they might not have much in common (or at least they might assume so–we tend to lose sight of the commonality of humanity in the face of obvious differences), they might not agree or see eye to eye. They might argue. They might even fear what they don’t fully understand about each other and never strike up a conversation at all. They might come to dislike each other. They might never have danced with each other.

Sometimes words just complicate a simple existence, you know? We feel they are steering us toward truth when in fact they are simply rearranging facts to make us feel more comfortable with the “truths” we create. We feel we are using them wisely when in fact we might be using them divisively instead. We fail to employ them to build others up because it is simpler to destroy. We fail to ask questions and instead assert assumptions.

Today, in the presence of music, words weren’t necessary and the people moved with unity–uniquely dancing their own Second Line but doing so together…respecting differences, even admiring them and thriving as a result. Today, I saw what the world can be when we tear down language of “them” and “us” and instead, embrace the dialogue of “we” and “us”. Today, I saw a vision of the beauty that arises when we simply let those around us be themselves without judgement because we are too busy being ourselves to find fault. Today, I saw the possibility of living together harmoniously in a world that seems to fight with fervor against such a dream. Today, I saw hope and it overwhelmed my heart.

A single moment taken in, considered. Renewal granted. Replenishment.

Light in the darkness exists, if we simply take the time to seek it out.

need

I’ve written a good bit this week about where I turn for healing and rest: gratitude, exercise, poetry. My heart is heavy today though, in spite of all of this. Life is tumultuous, you know, and right now the upheaval is pervasive, weakening my spirit, dulling my optimism. I tend to describe this feeling as “heart-achey”…which really just signifies a moment or several where my metaphorical heart (the one that holds the weight of this empathic life), feels as though the stitching is coming loose and that it is about to empty itself. I’m not a meltdown kind of girl. I endure in the face of gale force tempestuous winds. But today, my guard is down and I need a powerful healer.

Today I need music.

~~~“I Am In Need of Music” by Elizabeth Bishop~~~

In this poem, Bishop writes, “Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,/ Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,/A song to fall like water on my head,/And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!” This is what I need today. The overwhelming harmonious rush of sound washing over me, renewing me in the baptism of its waters and bringing me new life. I need the escape offered in each measure, the fulfillment of the attention my senses have been longing for as they are too frequently muted in the mundane actions of day to day life–dulled by my distraction.

Tonight, I will sit in a church full of people, and musicians will work their alchemy and transform the ache in my heart into the beat of perseverance and the light of hope–their craft, a sustaining force. Tonight, I will allow myself to be engulfed in the beauty of the work of these artists; I will allow myself to escape the world outside that sanctuary (what a perfect word) to be transported elsewhere. I will share this experience with pews full of strangers and friends and we will become a community in that communion…we will become one.

Tonight, I will be intentional. I will close my eyes and feel myself breathe in the joy carried in the air–a gift of the music in the room. And as I exhale, I will release the exhaustion and frustration. And if only for a few minutes, I will be healed.

The respite is going to be spectacular.

(Day 21–three whole weeks!!! This one is short but I like it anyway:) And also, it has been  busy day–just glad I had the time for this!)

unison

It began with a solitary voice.

She stood in front of the congregation, no music, no accompaniment…just a lone voice singing out, filling the silence.

“As I went down in the river to pray/ Studying about that good old way/ And who shall wear the starry crown/ Good Lord, show me the way!” 

Then suddenly two more voices joined hers and there were three voices singing together, filling the silence. Two by two, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, walked up and joined each other standing side by side singing. As more members of the choir and other church goers joined in and the sound of those beautiful voices singing in unison crescendoed, I found myself overwhelmed, tears welling.

I am easily moved, so tears like this aren’t uncommon. But today was different. Today, it wasn’t the words or even the beautiful voices. Today was a realization.

~~~

We live in a world where voices seem more often to scream out in discord rather than to join together harmoniously. Lone voices would rather be correct than work together to uncover what light and goodness might come from that union. Barriers go up so fast and they are built so solidly that it becomes impossible to even make sense of what is being said on the other side–we don’t hear the song, we just hear the noise…and the noise is loud. It feels unknown and unfamiliar and uncomfortable and what we don’t know frightens us so we fortify the barriers instead of asking questions, instead of seeking to understand. Our barriers are decorated carefully with words, phrases, posts and reposts so others will view them with reverence and maybe even fear. In their reinforcement, our barriers make us feel important. They make us feel right. They convince us that we don’t all have to live in this world together, that we really can separate ourselves and not interact, let alone interact civilly.

~~~ poetic interlude care of Robert Frost~~~

My students are currently conducting a little study on sonnets. One of the greatest common factors in the earliest sonnets is a diligent rhyme scheme. My kids tend to  love this quality because to many of them, rhyming poems feel like “real poems”…don’t get me started on this… Those rhymes echoing the same sound as the end of the line before, adding emphasis, adding rhythm also add a bit of comfort for my students who sometimes find themselves disconcerted by free verse. The earliest poems and stories we come to know in life rhyme, the first poems we write and are praised for often rhyme and so the rhyme in these sonnets brings on nostalgia for what was once deemed proper and correct. Breaking free from this concept that all poetry rhymes kind of terrifies some kids. It calls them to venture into territory they aren’t certain of, begs them to tear down barriers, requires them not to rely on the echo, on the creature comfort, but to create something that resonates with those around them for other reasons–meaningful reasons they must consider and craft. That is difficult work.

~~~a sonnet interlude care of Elizabeth Bishop~~~

I was working with a group of third through sixth graders at church one week and in the middle of a pretty lively conversation about judgments and bias and stereotypes asked them what it really means to love our neighbor. The inevitable eye roll and rote answer came my way. “Treat others the way we want to be treated.” Yes, but what does that look like? If we are truly called to love one another, what does that mean? How can we live into that? They thought for a bit and were hesitant to respond but once they did, the answers rolled in beautifully and honestly–“well, it’s hard because we are supposed to love everyone and not everyone is nice” “it means we are supposed to be kind” “it means that if someone is sitting alone at recess, I should go sit with them” And more…answers and examples unique to their daily experience came pouring in. It was a good reminder conversation with kids who have been taught this idea all of their lives. I ended the class by asking them to think about what specific actions they would really need to take in order to honor this commitment to love our neighbors. I joined in this thinking because I don’t think any of us are ever too old for this kind of intentional living, intentional loving. We all agreed that the things we thought about would be tough, but so is living in a world where people shy away from loving others just because sharing that love, sharing that grace, sharing that kindness feels like a risk. But we also agreed that it would be a risk worth taking.

~~~poetic interlude care of Naomi Shihab Nye-stick with this one, it is worth it~~~

I wasn’t even going to attend church today. I didn’t feel well last week and have so much work to do and so much that I could have gotten done during that time that would have made Monday far easier than it is going to be. But, my husband said the choir would be singing this song and it would be different so I went.

As I sat there in the crowd witnessing the growing number of voices joining in together to sing, my tears welling, I realized that there were no barriers. One lone voice singing out goodness was magnetic, and planned or not, others joined in, and like a light filling a dark room, the joy and goodness in their voices permeated hearts (or maybe just mine, but I’d like to think others felt it too). They weren’t echoing each other–Sure, they were singing together, but each voice sang out its own unique tone in its own unique way. There was no hiding in the choral unison because as voices joined in, they could be heard for who and what they were. Yet they all still made music, beautiful music together. There was love. That group of people, knowing them as I do, represented viewpoints and opinions that span the spectrum. They represented varying ages and identities, varying backgrounds and abilities and they stood together in agreement to sing a song about renewal, welcoming, and prayer. It was a visualization of what we need most in this world today, a visualization of what we could be–of what we were, if only for a moment and not just in a church but anywhere, everywhere.

And it was beautiful.

(Day 8, done. I’ve come to spend my days searching for something to write about since I’ve started this challenge instead of just waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s a good process I think but today was a moment in and of itself and begged me to put words to the emotion. Always the best when that happens!)

A ticket for my destination

“I was in crazy motion

till you calmed me down…”

(“Something So Right”, Paul Simon)

To the observant eye, Jazz Fest 2006 was a composition of strange juxtapositions. The pain of loss was fresh—surreal but powerful, pervasive. But, the city, nurtured and healed by its heart and enduring community, was reaching for recovery. Jazz Fest activities offered reprieve and felt almost normal, as though for a moment you might forget. But even amid that semblance of normalcy there was a constant haunting reminder that outside the gates of the Fair Grounds lie the lingering stench of floodwaters that sat for too long, houses (lives) left in shambles (unrecognizable), an emptiness left by those displaced or worse. There weren’t bookmarkers to measure this loss.

Inside the gates, however, was something else entirely–a vivid display of all that we are and have been; a brilliant indication that we would in fact be okay, we would rise again. The food, the music and the community of people joyously gathered together in spite of it all worked to heal something inside of me that day. Something I wasn’t so sure could be healed.

I went to that particular day of Jazz Fest as a bit of an unwilling participant. In addition to the devastation the storm brought to my family, in the months leading up to the storm, my husband and I had lost our son midway through the pregnancy and another baby to miscarriage. My body, my spirit was battered and seemed to understand a depth of loss that my empathic nature could never have predicted. It seemed permanent damage. And maybe on some level it has been.

Except not entirely.

I went to Jazz Fest that day for one reason only: Paul Simon. I was in a funk. I was sad…for myself, for my city, for my parents…and I just wanted some do-overs.  Paul Simon’s music does something to me that I don’t have proper words to explain. His lyrics are poetry in a way that not all lyrics can hope to become. His awareness of words, his attention to how they work together, to how the sounds of the letters and their repetition create a rhythm just as the music does, how his words create a moment for the listener–first inviting you in, then residing in your heart, in your mind. That is what poetry does…that is what Paul Simon’s work has done for me…storied my life, guided me through.

As I stood in that field, Paul Simon, playing songs we had all heard before, somehow uplifted the city of New Orleans, and I was delivered to a sort of rebirth…a baptism if you will, but not by water (there had been enough of that). It was music that brought healing and comfort that day and carried me from the funk to the other side…to a place where I could see the possibility of goodness again. I stood in that field not knowing if I would ever have children, but knowing that my spirit was healing and that no matter what, I would be okay.

“My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.”

(“Patterns”, Paul Simon)

Thirteen years later, I find myself in the midst of a new sort of recovery, facing the hope of yet another rebirth.

I spent so many months of the last year disabled by hearing loss and vertigo…and after becoming resigned to the fact that my hearing could be permanently damaged but I might still potentially hear the movement of my eyes forever (I promise, the novelty of this idea is deceiving)…after spending months trying to memorize the sound of my children’s laughter rather than be annoyed by the noise of it and carefully studying voices of loved ones before I no longer heard them as I should…after learning not to trust my body or my balance and after fearing loss of so much, I have come to find my body healed (at least for now) by a surgery that seemed unfathomable for so long.

Yet, while my inner ear is currently in a more cooperative mood, my mind and spirit are still trying to catch up. On any given day, at any given moment, I find myself suddenly stricken with absolute panic over the possibility of symptoms returning despite the fact that, everyday, my life is a little closer to normal. Or, I find myself unexpectedly emotional at the weirdest times when gratitude for health and healing overwhelms me. I’ve learned what it means to be a fighter over time, and while I am weary of having to continually prove my brawn, I furiously battle on through the weight of this anxiety and these grateful tears.

In the midst of all of the unknowns of this illness though, tickets went on sale for Paul Simon’s New Orleans show of his farewell tour.  We bought floor tickets without thinking too much about it. I had no idea if I would be able to stand in a crowd or stand at all…I had no idea if I would be able to hear well enough to enjoy the show…I had no idea if I would be too sick to attend. All I knew was that if Paul Simon was coming to New Orleans, I had to be there.

Buying those tickets was a leap of faith.

Recovery has not been an easy road, but my beacon all the way through was knowing that in just a few short weeks, I would be in the New Orleans Arena vertigo free, with my hearing restored and once again having my soul replenished by the beauty and richness of Paul Simon’s lyrics and music.

As I sit here tonight typing these words (the night before the concert), a tropical storm looms in the Gulf (I promise, this English teacher has assigned more meaning there than should be).  A bit of a reminder for me that storms will come–they might flood, they might destroy, they might bring uncertainty and fear and it might be hard to see in the midst of them or to know when it will subside, but there is another side.

There is always another side.

Tomorrow night, when I walk into that arena, I will be stepping not just into a shelter from the storm, not just into a brief respite, but I will be stepping toward the consolation that will be my reward.