Ruth Farmer began her commencement talk by reciting Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” and then telling us what these words by this Victorian-era poet have to do with our lives today.
I learned this poem by heart ten or more years ago. Getting up in front of a crowd during a reading and reciting the poem from memory was difficult. The thing is that memorizing has always been difficult for me. When I was a kid, my family would often say, “Oh, you don’t remember anything.” The names of cousins I’d played with two years before, favorite aunts, directions. You name it, I forgot it.
But “The Windhover” captured my imagination, exe rcised my creativity, energized my love of language. I will never claim to know the depth of meaning that Hopkins intended. I just know what I know: that the poem spoke to me, such that I wanted to remember the texture of the words.
Learning of the poem led me to read about Hopkins. To say that I studied him would be a bit of a stretch. One thing that I discovered is that he was a sensitive soul, which is probably why he could write such lovely lyrical and ecstatic language about a predator.
One day while staring out my dining room window, I saw an American Kestrel – a windhover – land in the backyard. As I watched, it busied itself in the grass, probing, picking, its head jerking up and down, pausing to look left and right, then dipping down to pull again and again. Little flecks flew up from time to time. This activity went on for several minutes, and I watched as I sipped my coffee. Eventually, the bird flew away, and I walked outside, looked down at the spot where the bird had been and found a tiny ball of gray fur. I could only imagine what it had been.
Hopkins and I observed the same phenomenon – a windhover going about its day, looking for food. Hopkins captured the kaleidoscopic magnificence of flight. While eating its meal, the bird I observed was just as beautiful but in a different kind of moment.
It is a difference in perspective, focus, style, purpose, even the era in which the observations were made. A priest living in the 19th century and a teacher living in the 21st century will automatically have different perspectives and understandings. Yet we were interested in what is essentially the routine of an ordinary bird.
As graduates, your perspectives at this juncture are very different from the ones you had when you arrived at Goddard. You started with questions, situations, experiences, texts, and ideas that spoke to you. On some level, your questions deal with ordinary things:
What can we do about the problem of evil?
What does it mean to be human?
How can I use my life experiences to help others thrive?
How can I help change the messages and metaphors that undermine us?
Those questions evolve from ordinary issues. Not in the sense of the mundane, but in the sense of a magnificent everyday. Like the gash-gold-vermillion of a windhover in flight. The questions are essential because, to paraphrase Mary Rothschild, they represent urgency and hope. The exploration of these questions can lead to excellence or despair.
The questions that led you to your final products emerge from your individual experiences and knowledge, and there are similarities in them because they are deeply rooted in your desire to transform yourselves and facilitate the transformation of others. Yet the methods used to explore these questions are quite different: psychology, coaching, media literacy, and art.
This is the nature of individualized studies: The ability, the necessity of exploring familiar, everyday, essential questions in very personal and personalized ways. Yet always mindful that you are part of a larger conversation, an extended reality.
On the cover of this semester’s residency schedule is a quote from writer Toni Cade Bambara. It comes from a piece titled “What it is I think I’m Doing Anyhow.” There is clearly a question underpinning that title, a question that leads in several directions:
Why do you do what you do?
What is it you hope to accomplish?
What difference does it make to you or anyone else?
There is a war going on and a transformation taking place. That war is not simply the contest between the socialist camp and the capitalist camp over which political/economic/social arrangement will enjoy hegemony in the world, nor is it simply the battle over turf and resources. Truth is one of the issues in this war. The truth, for example, about inherent human nature, about our potential, our agenda as earth people, our destiny.
Bambara speaks of a war. This can be taken literally and metaphorically, bullets, ballots, and social, political, and global. It is conflict. It is real. She wrote about this over 30 years ago. It has significance today. This literal, metaphorical conflict has significance for everyone in this room, but not in the same ways. For this reason, our questions, our issues vis a vis this war are different. The use of the word “war” can be called into question for the extremity of its connotation. But as I pause in the moment of Bambara’s perspective, using the term that she used, I acknowledge that it is impossible to experience war, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically, without experiencing change.
In small ways, in large ways, people are beginning to acknowledge that we are not living in the silos we once believed we lived in. We are separated from Egypt by thousands of miles, yet the revolution that is going on in that part of the world has impacted all of us in this room, in some way. For me, the revolution in that country has reinforced in me an understanding of the ferocity and the hope that underpin political and social struggles. And that revolution begins with individuals who question acceptance of the status quo, who resist the little day-to-day indignities that are the hallmarks of oppression.
Bambara’s means of participating in the war was to “explore bodies of knowledge for the usable wisdoms they yield.” She believed in “the fusion of those disciplines whose split (material science versus metaphysics versus aesthetics versus politics versus …) predisposes us to accept fragmented truths and distortions as the whole.”
“Writing,” she says, “is one of the ways I do my work in the world.”
Hopkins chose to write ecstatic and sometimes, rather odd poems as part of his work in the world. And centuries later, his work transformed my aesthetic sense of language and poetry, and gave me permission to write as I wanted, odd, ecstatic, or otherwise.
From talking with you, dear graduates, I know that you have encountered theories, texts, people, experiences that have given you permission to do your work in your own way.
Typically, commencement speakers reflect on what graduates will do when they go out into the world. This is because at so many colleges and universities, students are considered to be in holding patterns. Life will begin when the degree is attained. That is not the way here in IMA. Here, it is a given that you have fused disciplines, that you have not accepted “fragmented truths and distortions as the whole.” You are expected to be intentional in exploring ways to do your work in the world. And you have met those challenges. Perhaps you have retained a beginner’s mind because you understand that there is always more to learn, but you are ever closer to answering the questions you posed, while generating deeper inquiry as you go forward.
Former director general of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, wrote that “The world of tomorrow must be fundamentally different from the world we know as we step into the 21st century and the new millennium. … Education, in the broadest sense of the term, plays a preponderant role in this development. [It] is the “force for the future” because it is one of the most powerful instruments of change. Deidre, Mike, Todd, and Mary: I know that your learning, your knowledge have been powerful instruments of change for you and all those you’ve encountered. Thank you for all you have done to help make this community, and others, better places in which to live.
— Ruth Farmer, February 20, 2011