The young graduates strode briskly across the small stage, with red satin sleeves flapping at their sides. Their smiles were wide and frozen, like they knew they were supposed to be feeling elated, but weren’t completely convinced.
They seemed in a hurry to be done – out of there and on to someplace else.
Like the girls who were literally balancing on their too-high heels, they seemed poised between their time of measured reflection and something unknown, undefined. But for sure it must be grabbed up quickly.
There is mounting pressure to keep pace with their peers in our peripatetic world of accomplishment.
The graduates realize that they must move forward, move on, into something, anything really – but just move. Because life simply won’t slow down for them.
And I think of those times when I’ve felt the same way, hurried across one stage or another, never really taking time to process it, let it take root.
Watching my niece’s graduation last weekend brought back memories of my own, back in 1999, when I was thirty-six. I never finished college the first time around, and so I went back to get my degree when our kids were in grade school.
I loved it so much more as an older student. I became the most enthusiastic one in class, I did all of the required reading. The traditional students grew to like me in spite of my classroom participation.
I memorized the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales.
And I remember, almost guiltily spending whole afternoons in a dark Art History auditorium, watching the slides flip by. I’d emerge afterwards feeling like I’d been to another country, in another century.
And now I’ve been to Europe, and it brings back the exact way my teacher used the term “modernity” with her artsy inflection. I never thought I’d get to see some of those works in person, much less use the fancy word.
And I got to know my professors, many of whom were younger than me. They sometimes wanted feedback on a lecture, and sometimes they asked for parenting advice.
I remember sitting beneath the big oak trees at school, in the warm fall afternoons, reading Milton. How to even describe how lucky I felt? My kids safe in school, and hey, me in school too.
I recall taking long walks across campus, admiring the way the buildings complemented one another, graceful form meeting function. Designed for housing intellectual ideas, what a rare notion.
I recollect spending rainy afternoons in the student union with my other older friend, shuffling flashcards and ruthlessly quizzing one another. And then surfacing only to find the afternoon gone – time to pick up the kids.
I remember wanting to get my diploma before they did, so they’d know I was smart, and that I valued lifelong learning. But I had to scramble.
And it was exhilarating to finally finish after so many years. I was so proud to have juggled the kids and all of the studying, and writing papers to get my English Lit degree.
I cried as I crossed the stage at commencement, when I saw my parents applauding and smiling. But my childrens’ smiles were the biggest, because I think they understood the most, what it meant to me. They were still in it.
But I was sad when it was over. It had been a gift, the freedom to read and write and explore and pretend to be a young co-ed. I’d been granted a do-over, and I knew it would never come again.
Being young, we’re often so inebriated with speed and distraction. We love the buzz we get when we’re chasing down what everyone else is going after. It’s only in the rearview mirror that we are able to see the cool stuff we sometimes leave behind.
But those college memories were a lesson in slowing down, in savoring, in feeling the lined paper under my fingers as I wrote. Even today, I picture myself mid-sentence, with my yellow highlighter poised over some Shakespearean sonnet, self-conscious, but in a really wonderful way.
I can still feel that particular sensation, and I think I’ll always be trying to find it again, even here.
Anyway, looking back and knowing how foolish it is to rush around is probably a symptom of aging. But if that’s true, it’s also a gift.
Commencement speakers always offer up the perennial carpe diem, seize the day, to inspire young people as they go out into the world. But I think that particular message is already so saturated in our culture that we need to balance out the message.
I prefer the Latin adarare: plow carefully.
These days I’m watching my kids as they enter this growthful, highly productive time of life, and I think they’re doing well. Neither one has an A-type personality. My son has the soul of a farmer, and my daughter, while probably more of a warrior-gatherer, is an extremely thoughtful one.
But sometimes, when I listen to the details of their busy lives and the pace with which they process things and move around, I sigh. It makes me feel tired for them.
I want to say again, like I did when they were toddlers – don’t go so fast, slow down!
Walk, don’t run – adarare. Plow your fields with care – sow your seeds patiently.
Because what you’re really growing are the memories.