Tear Down Your House and Build A Boat
Senior Lecture, Sarah Lawrence College
I can't tell you how pleased and honored I am to be standing here as your senior lecturer, to send you off on your last day--as you might remember, we were here together on your first day, four years ago, another great joy for me. The clock was running backwards, as you might remember, supporting my arguments about the beautiful strangeness of Sarah Lawrence, and of every human spirit when it's free--but now it's run forwards for a little while, and here we are, you're grown.
So how was it? Did you have the courage to be your strange self? Did you love each other? Did you live? Did you turn?
When I was trying to think of something useful to say to you today, I came up to campus with my daughter Eve, to go to the gym and feast at Lange's, which we've been doing since she was one--she's sixteen now--and I asked her, Tell me three adjectives that come to mind when you think of Sarah Lawrence. Women, she said. Okay, nouns, I said. Grass, she said, and you who are leaving this place soon will remember how beautiful it is that way--this was from the Manhattan girl who used to get out of the car on campus and say The air smells like candy here! Artsy, she said last, all of which we'll return to.
I was also standing here ten years ago, to give the senior lecture, which is always called A Life of Learning--I was just shy of forty, just shy of fifty now, and partly for the sake of those in the room who were here then, and partly to respect the artist's imperative to Make It New, I'm going to focus today on my Life of Learning of the past ten years, which has been pretty eventful. I subtitled the last lecture Everything You Have to Wake?, from Tillie Olsen's great long story "Tell Me A Riddle"; this one's called Tear Down Your House And Build A Boat, from the epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king from the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, who had to figure out how to survive a flood--whose best friend died, and then his life of learning took a turn.
I last gave this lecture in the spring of 2000; maybe the next time I stood here after that was to give a talk at the end of the summer week for campus activists we used to host, at the beginning of September in 2001. I remember talking about alumnus Donald Singletary telling us about the days when radio stations were permitted to play only two songs an hour by black artists, and not back to back—because once you get back to back, who knows what might happen, right?—and about the velvet rope he remembered from a Philadelphia hall, dividing the black and white dancers. And I remember talking quite a bit about Victor Jara, who as some of you might know was a Chilean activist and singer—who died in 1973, in the aftermath of a day I always remembered, as a poet and as a citizen, as the day our country collaborated in tearing out the heart of the country of Pablo Neruda. September 11. Then a little while later it was Tuesday, and I was walking across the lawn in front of this building on a beautiful, bright morning...but I don't need to finish this sentence, you all know what comes next. One of Victor Jara’s beautiful songs is addresed to his wife Joan, a dancer born in Britain and as dedicated to Chilean democracy as he was—and he describes them as ‘laborando al comienzo de una historia/sin saber el fin’—working at the beginning of a story/without knowing the end.’ A feeling with which you may be familiar, sitting where you are just now.
Since moving here to get my MFA at Columbia in the fall of 1984, I've walked the streets of New York City with a conflicted, involuntary devotion usually given to a person and not a place; if I trace back along the line of my mothers, I get to Mary Brown, buried under a pine in Brooklyn, who fled the Irish famine and lived on Hudson Street, working in the mattress factory of the man who would become her husband, making her way toward the cirrhosis of the liver that would kill her when she was about my age--holding in her body the sweet woman who would become my great-grandmother, buried one hawk-sweep south of here, under willows at the edge of a Bronx lake, on whose lap I learned to read. And if I trace back my fathers, I get to Jacob Gardinier from Amsterdam, indentured carpenter for the Dutch West Indies Company, cited in the court records of New Amsterdam for drinking, fighting and drinking, having business disagreements and drinking, and making a mess of his yard at the corner of Wall and Pearl, what will soon be four hundred years ago. Praise to them both, ashé, thank you. It's amazing, isn't it, the threads of accident that make the fabric of a life: the people who could have stayed where they were but moved, or whom history moved, the people who died and the people who happened to live--and that accident in 2001--when I first heard about it on the radio, the announcers' strange voices were calling it an accident, between one of the World Trade towers and a plane--that encounter, between two planes taken over by men speaking Arabic and the city I live in and love, in many ways for me erased the life before that day and started a new one. The first time I got on an airplane after that was in order to sleep on a sidewalk in Beirut--more on that in a moment—and the second time was to fly to Tel Aviv, and from there to travel to Ramallah, Jerusalem, Jenin, and Gaza, as part of a group called Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Soon after that, the ten-year relationship between me and the mother of my children fell apart, and I was living uncoupled for the first time in my life, and living apart from our children, who were sixteen and eleven--and soon after that was living in two other kinds of excruciating pain, one from herniating a disk in my neck, which resulted in radial nerve pain I still have the ghost of—and one from keeping close by my best friend in the last beautiful days of her beautiful life. Okay, three other kinds of excruciating pain, as I had also fallen in love with someone impossible.
My first book was a long poem called The New World, and it was about the land fifty miles in all directions from Columbus Circle; many times in the course of those makings and since, I've stood on some Manhattan ground, looking out over one of the rivers, and thought about those first encounters, between the sailors from Europe and the people who lived here--about what those encounters might have been, the possibilities for new life in them, and the violence and heartbreak they were instead. Sometimes in the middle of all the twenty-first century fouling and gleaming it's hard to get a sense of how it must have been--but then that September 11 in 2001 provided such a vivid example, of what it's like when strangers arrive in your song-laced place with an intent to take--to kill--of what it smells like when a village burns. In this case, a village made of other burned villages, mostly forgotten, except for the persistence of beautiful indestructible words like ‘Manhattan.’
Before that September 11, most of what political work I did leaned in one of two directions: domestic anti-racism organizing, and solidarity movements connected to Latin America. If you had told me before that morning that the first time I would leave this country for a specifically political purpose would be on a plane to Beirut, I would not have believed it. This might be useful for you to remember, as all despair involves some kind of egotistical faith in one's own ability to predict the future--but life has a way of displaying a range of possibilities far more breathtaking and various than any human being can predict--a way of tearing down your house, let's say--that can do serious damage, not only to one's sense of comfort and security, but also to melancholy, an affliction with which some of you artsy Sarah Lawrence students may be familiar. I've spent a fair amount of time over the past ten years thinking about Job--and one of the most beautiful parts of his story, his poem, is where he's giving eloquent voice to his agony--'whining about his condition,' as Whitman might say, in Song of Myself, where he's wishing he could live only with animals, who never do this--and the force Job calls God barges into the house of his self-pity by displaying the breathtaking glory of the whole sweep of creation, of which Job's misery is only a tiny part--and by intimately insisting that Job attend to this. That he see. "I will demand of thee," God says to Job, allowing him to be brought to the edge of the incomprehensible and unendurable, "and declare thou unto me." Or: I'm gonna ask you some things, and I expect an answer.
In April of 2002 I was sitting in my office and, not unusually, opened an email, from someone I didn't know. “My name is Tzaporah Ryder,” it started. (Some of you may remember that Zipporah in the Bible was Moses’s wife, who created some consternation, with his sister Miriam in particular, because she was black--'Ethiopian,' as the King James version puts it—“a woman from another nation.” In Hebrew her name means 'bird.’)
“I am an American student from the University of Minnesota," this Tzaporah wrote. "I currently am in Ramallah. We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers. They are shooting outside at anything that moves. I am urgently pleading for as much outside help as possible to help save lives here.” I had only the vaguest idea where Ramallah was, and that only since the previous September. Another forwarded message, from someone signed only ‘Huwaida,’ said this: “The presidential compound in Ramallah is currently being fired upon. We still have 34 foreign peace activists inside. There is a dire shortage of food and no water. They urgently need medical supplies. Palestinian doctors were forced to dig a mass grave in the parking lot of the Ramallah hospital today, to bury 25 of the dead bodies that have been retrieved over the past 4 days.” I read these letters sitting in my office and thought, This can’t be happening. And then I thought: What would you do if these letters had arrived on pieces of paper, from San Salvador in 1980, or from Soweto in 1976, or from Vienna in 1938? And what would you think of yourself, what would your children and your grandchildren think of you, if you did nothing?
Soon after that I was listening to the radio again, and heard a young woman asking internationals to come join a peace encampment in Beirut, to protest the escalating brutality across the border. When an email returned from the given address, I found she was a Sarah Lawrence student, on spring break at her home in Lebanon when the Israeli invasion of the Palestinian cities began. So on April 13 I got on an airplane, for Beirut, to try to answer two letters from two young women, one named Tzaporah Ryder and one Lana el-Khalil--to protest the turning of city buildings to corpses and dust--in this case to protest what the Israeli army was doing in the Palestinian cities.
On the morning of that April 13 I woke as usual to the sound of the newspaper against the door of my Manhattan apartment; on the morning of April 15 I woke at dawn to the sound of a muezzin from the west mixing with the sound of church bells from the east, to the smell of harbor and coffee and diesel, on a sidewalk in Martyrs’ Square, along what was called the Green Line during the civil war, what Beirutis called khutut at tammas, the line of confrontation. By 2002 it was a busy, barren traffic circle, many of the surrounding buildings still pocked by bullets and shells. When I told people in New York I was flying to Beirut, some looked at me the way people in Boston did when I told them I was moving to West 107th Street in the mid-1980s--as if I’d said, I’m traveling to the edge of the known world. Judging from my trembling as I embarked, some part of me must have agreed with them. At the airport at three in the morning, smiling with a sign as I got off the plane, were three of the young people who’d organized the encampment, called Tents of Resistance: Nadim and Saseen from Beirut, who spoke good English, and Mina from Madrid who spoke good Arabic, who was the first to say to me the word I would hear so many times during my visit, and later in the doorways of tents and houses in Palestine: Ah’len. Welcome.
(When my children were little and we'd go to demonstrations, they were always amazed by the fact that we almost always ran into Sarah Lawrence students: by the Plaza when the World Trade Organization was meeting, in Union Square after September 11, on the streets of Washington for various sad inaugurations. After a while they'd try to spot you in advance, by that air of renegade unconventionality, that reconciliation of the styles, for one example, of two intense men with mustaches beside each other in the early twentieth century and in photographs in my kitchen: Rainer Maria Rilke and Emiliano Zapata. Look, we'd say, Sarah children. And that's what Nadim and Saseen and Mina looked like, and the young people from all over the world sleeping on that sidewalk together. They looked like Sarah children.)
On the last night I was there, someone with a car drove us up into the hills, so we could see the lights of the city spread over the curve of the harbor, meeting the darkness of the sea; back where we slept, the demonstrators had put candles in glasses along the curb, and I sat talking with Amira Solh, born in the United States to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother, an urban planner who was in downtown Manhattan on September 11. She told me about CIA and FBI agents coming to the houses of her friends, then to their workplaces; a man she knew from Morocco was suddenly told at the door to a flight from Atlanta that he couldn’t board, and a friend from Dubai in computer marketing lost his job when FBI agents called all his clients. Amira volunteered for a while for Arab American Family Support in Brooklyn, walking with veiled women to grocery stores and to pick up their children at school. On East 11th Street, near where she lived, a crowd outside a mosque one afternoon threatened to torch it; the people who kept the community garden there gathered and turned them away. “I love New York, but I had to come back here,” she said. “I found myself starting to say, ‘Please don’t wear the kaffiyeh,’ or ‘Let’s not play the Arabic music so loud.’ There was such an intense climate of fear.”
“My mother’s family is from Gaza,” she said, looking out into the street. “My grandmother lives there. We were worried about her; we tried to get her to go to Egypt, but she wouldn’t go. Do you understand what I’m saying? We aren’t going anywhere.
“I can’t really explain to you how helpless we are as Arab people,” she said. “Our resolve can only take us so far. This part of the world needs to be more than an evening on the Upper West Side. So much is dependent on what you have to do as Americans. You’re talking about our lives. Our governments are American puppets and your government in your name is destroying our lives.”
was sitting below a drawing made by a child in Shatila, a refugee camp a
fifteen-minute bus ride away--a drawing of a tank with a Star of David on it,
and a boy throwing stones. When I first returned from
Beirut I dreamed about it almost every night:
of edging into the streets’ heavy traffic, the voices speaking French
and English and a beautiful language I couldn’t understand, the smell of coffee
and hot breakfast bread with lebneh and oil and za’atar--of the early morning we drove through the awakening city
on the way to the bus to Shatila. I
dreamed especially of Shatila: of the
cubbies in the elementary school there, of the faces and gestures and eloquent
silences of the survivors of the 1982 massacres, who told us what happened and
how they managed to live; of the boy calling across the mass grave with his
face pressed to the screen, the girl on the steps of the Gaza Hospital with her
hand in a goat’s hair, wearing a t-shirt that said University of Soldier; of
the girl who agreed that if I sang a song from my country, she'd sing a song
from hers. The afternoon of September
11, I called my daughter from my office here and said, "I'm so glad
everyone in our family is safe"; and she paused a moment--she was
seven--and said, "Yeah, but if you think about it, a lot of people in our
family died this morning." And in
that great Tillie Olsen story I mentioned before, one refugee, a man named
David, is watching another do her dying, his wife, Eva, part of the 1905
Russian revolutions when she was a girl--and he's describing their
grandchildren, who've grown up in California--"beautiful skins, straight
backs, clear straightforward eyes. 'Yes,
you in Olshana,' he said to the town of sixty years ago, 'they would be
nobility to you.'
"And was this not the dream then, come true in ways undreamed?' he asked."
And then he answers himself what she would have answered, in her voice--a sentence I put up on the wall in the fall of 2005, beside a picture of four girls from Basra, when I moved into my little studio alone: "And are there no other children in the world?"
Most of my formal education, my formal life of learning, most of which I've had to unlearn, taught me that time is a line, along which I would travel alone, birth to death, among other lines mine would never touch; but it seems to me more and more that time moves in circles: like the one holding my friend Regina standing here giving this lecture thirteen years ago, and my first speaking to her to leave her a phone message to tell her how beautiful it was--and my standing here three years after that, and her sitting right there, in the middle of this room--you can see her beautiful locks in the video at the end--and my standing here with her sorority sisters and her family and Calvin Butts from Abyssinian Baptist to say goodbye to her, to sing the song she asked me to sing, at her memorial, four years ago--and my standing here that following fall with you, in the beauty of your beginnings, and standing here with you now.
One of the things you might learn if you fall in love with someone impossible, in a way that tears your old life apart--or if you're lucky enough to accompany someone you love in their last days on this earth--or if you're in so much physical pain you forget your old ways to sleep or eat--is that beyond that line I had to unlearn, beyond all those lines--beyond all those rigidities and divisions, those empire-minded attempts to control, to divide life into Things I Like and Things I Don't--(My Things I Like might have been: People who love you back according to your exact specifications--A body that doesn't feel pain--Friends who never die--) (For you just now these might include: Lucrative employment--Complete clarity of life purpose--A New York City apartment--) -- beyond what James Baldwin, who's buried one hawk-sweep north of here, called 'that terrifying American sterility'--is something else. Something hard to describe. Something Flannery O'Connor might say we're pressed toward by violence, the only thing that can break through our human determination to remain asleep. Something Proust would say we're pressed toward by loving someone impossible. A boat instead of a house. A verb instead of a noun. Something based on, as Walter Benjamin said about what Proust's voice obeyed, the laws of night and honey--based on what's alive, on what moves, instead of on the fixity I tried to keep until life took it from me, with a generosity I fought with all my resources. My last athletic absorption before this most recent chapter of my life was boxing; in college I played rugby, and one of our team t-shirts said My Body Is A Finely Tuned Instrument of Destruction. So it was a very unusual door I opened in the Campbell Sports Center, after nudges in this direction from my beloved Regina and from someone impossible, when I took my first yoga class, with Victoria Catandella, bless her, a door I haven't stopped opening since, beyond which is this sweet thing without a name I keep trying to tell you about and failing.
I'm trying to tell you this because, as you may have noticed, the waters are coming up. I didn't want to emphasize this too much the last time we talked, when you were babies. But now you're grown. When I met my friend Brad in a café last winter and we started to discuss our novels in progress, he said, "Yours isn't about the end of the world too, is it?" When I was your age, I had a big argument with my brother about his registering for the draft--and he said Kurt Vonnegut said that being against war is like being against glaciers. Because glaciers are permanent. Hmm. It's a very interesting moment we're in just now.
You're not lying awake worrying because you're neurotic. (Or not entirely anyway.) You're worrying because you're awake. And the question isn't how best to anesthetize yourself against this, but how to live with it. How to dance with what's true. A couple of weeks ago, one of my valiant student poets, maybe sitting here, T?, said, "I'm sorry, Suzanne, I couldn't do my memorization because I'm graduating and I don't have a job and I'm suffering from crippling anxiety. I'm going to intern until I die. There's nowhere for me in this world." For part of an answer to this, I'm going to read you a piece of a poem I made last spring, about John Coltrane, about crippling anxiety, and alternatives to anesthesia, and making a place in the world, by a method I recommend without reservation: practicing. So you could say, I'm sorry, Suzanne, I couldn't suffer from crippling anxiety, because I was practicing.
He's in the key of F and it’s raining/which makes him think he’s by himself
As if the woodshed weren’t so crowded/you can hardly hear yourself think
He pretends he’s alone so he won’t see/what the laughing captain is teaching the others
What someone taught the captain What/someone's mother’s face said when she came downstairs
Is it winter or spring He can’t remember/Or
what he promised the night he would do
Or the turns in the river of oblivion mapped/up and down his arms
He likes it there Where he forgets/the body he can’t inhabit or escape
And the bodies of the others he forgets/behind the rented room’s locked door
He’s playing scales and sweating
What feels like/sickness comes as forgetting fades
He’s playing scales but he’s hearing bells/at the ankles of dancers with chain scars there
Playing geese caught in a net screaming/One body divided into voices
At the corner of a street he forgets and Columbus/Bells of shuffle dancers in the rain
He’s sick but he can’t stop just
yet Up and down/in the tracks of the map his dream made
Remembering his aunt’s touch Forgetting/what his country taught him his body is
In his arms a curve of metal translating/breath into horses in a bolted barn burning
In his eyes the last drift of forgetting but he closes them/In his mouth a slip of cane
Wet and bound by the
ligature/Supple and tight enough to sing
At the touch of his tongue To call to the flipper/gate at the thumb of his left hand
On the gold neck His right low on the body/as if guiding the opening of the bell
Where something sweet with no name keeps/pressing Trying to get through
First dust He gathers it in the bell/In the wrong light you could mistake it for gold
Or the flecks of a meteor passage sifting/into Friday afternoon
In a locked room with a window a little/open to traffic and the gray street shining
Wet In the woodshed In daylight Ransacking/the chords that woke him up in the night
Dust Swirling As it coalesces/he
starts to taste what he’s thirsty for
And leans into the pull of it Singing/a heathen song in a foreign land
You could mistake for home if you listen/to a son of slaves sweating in his boxers
Making lightning like the first white fire/on the cherry branches in the park across the way
He’s lost something The raisins in
his pocket/remind him as he plays the labyrinth
Back to the vineyard When he gets to rock/he turns and comes back another way
Architect Undoing the harmony bindings/Unfolding the silk to find the seed
Back to the field Where he closes his eyes/to watch a fox on fire running through
Four-note patterns Twelve ways
till Sunday/One lifetime in each of the keys
Leaving notes to answer the question/What you gonna do when the world’s on fire
Dissolving the citadels Hushing the sentries/Filing the locks from the silos of grain
Notes in the fractures Gathering Dispersing/Finding the next question Didn’t it rain
And Ain’t that a witness To the
scatter of settlements/The facet break of the pyramid tombs
The king’s body returned to the earth/and the limestone forams to the sea
The villagers dancing in the palace footprints/designed to match the footprints of the stars
The slave quarters The walls of segregation/dust under wanderers’ feet
He rides the rails inside the
mouthpiece/to the delta marsh huts made of reed
Playing down the towers So the sick/heal The hungry eat The dead sing
Listening for the messenger’s signature/left between the limestones in a seam
Iridium Sign of the great dying/and birthplace of its refugees
Up to the troposphere Down to the
mantle/He finds dust and plays the monuments broken
With the scavenger resourcefulness/of the remnant who return
Nodding and leaning Like washing clothes/on a rough rock kneeling at the edge of a river
Up and down the ziggurat terraces/Finding Dispersing Closing the gates
As he makes the neighborhood sound
Joining/his river of notes to the river outside
To the river his mothers were taken from/To the river just above his head
Friday afternoon hiding it He lays down/the approaches and opens the bays
And walks across the bridge to the black place/And back And again Practicing
At one point while I was working on this lecture I went to the Columbia library; the gentleman who stands at the Butler gate while the mostly oblivious and occasionally outright rude scholars swipe their i.d.s has the most beautiful smile. When I asked him How do you do it? How do you keep that joy, all day long?, he said, You gotta start high on Mondays. By Fridays they wear you down. And I said, You must do something sweet on the weekends to get that high by Mondays.
So today I'm considering it part of my teacherly obligations to pass on to you my advice on ways to get high--and they aren't the ones mentioned in these two lines from another valiant student poet's in-class exercise: "It's nine o'clock on a Friday morning./Already my hallway smells like weed." This advice comes from your teacher here who has by practice and lucky grace avoided one hazard of her ancestry and her vocation by not having had a drink in more than twenty-five years. As someone whose birthday it is today might ask--Malcolm X, who's also buried one hawk-sweep north of here, across the way from Mr. Baldwin--In whose interest is it if your ways of getting high make you disappear? As Malcolm said, "You can't get into a whisky bottle without getting past the government seal."
The man in that piece of a poem I read you is playing. He's doing something a lot of the death-drenched culture around him would say isn't serious, isn't really work, isn't something good to say to relatives and strangers on buses when they ask that terrible American question, So, what do you do? In some ways you could say he's being womanly, by the stereotypes of a macho culture's standards, and green, in returning and returning to his beginner's mind, and artsy. He's fooling around with a horn. And he's in the woodshed, which you might think if you haven't spent much time there is a drag. The word comes from where people used to beat their children. I'm not kidding. An isolated place for what some people called discipline. And then jazz musicians took the word and alchemized the poison of it, and made it mean the place where you practice. So when the waters come up, you know what to do. So with the arrival of what Gilgamesh calls "the terrible torrent that destroys the bulwarks"--what Joyce's Molly Bloom calls "that awful deepdown torrent"--you can be trained enough not to panic, but to dance. It can feel like it's trying to kill you. But it could be that it's trying to teach you what my wise friend Ferd Jones calls resilience--to bend you, to the laws of night and honey, so you can learn to live. So you can learn the sweetness of what it means to be grown. So you can learn what Rilke says in the seventh Duino elegy: Hiersein ist Herrlich. Literally, Here-ness is God-like. Is glorious. Right here. Right now. As it is. In yoga class, when we're doing tadasana, mountain pose--which may seem easy but isn't--which looks something like this--(Do it)--my beloved teacher Nikki sometimes says, Try to just be in this pose. Instead of waiting. Then she smiles. Waiting for what?
The kind of yoga I do is vinyasa; 'nyasa' in Sanskrit means 'to place,' and 'vi,' means 'in a special way,' which in the case of the angels I practice with means gracefully linking movement to breath. In some Indian music it can refer to improvised variations on a theme, like jazz, and that's what classes are like--you make the gesture of opening your heart, and then you do that to the right, to the left, forwards, backwards, upside-down, for an hour and a half or two hours or so, three or four or five times a week. In my case, this means tearing down the house of my rugby player's locked shoulders, and my boxer's reflexes toward aggression and defense, and beginning to build something else--or to allow something else to be built--to surrender to this--as the great poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Billie Holiday might put it, Softly. Not with strength, but with this. (Ujayi.) With breath. Still more softly. A way of being I am only barely beginning to understand. A way that has somehow changed every cell of me, over the course of the past three and a half years. A way that's become my boat. What George Herbert calls in a poem, "Such a life as killeth death." I'm telling you this so you can keep watch, because it can seem so unlikely and impossible when this happens to you. So easy to divide things into those categories I mentioned before. So easy not to recognize an angel.
You left a few souvenirs last night
Three bent feathers Marks on my hips Angel
My brother's wounds open again by morning
All night they're closed and blessed by an angel
With your thumb you wipe the lipstick from my neck
so no one will know you've visited Angel
Is it true you're wearing a uniform now
Are you part of the emperor's legion Angel
The tideline of your sweat on the sheet
Your shoulders' labor Night swimmer Angel
A note on the pillow Un
Artichoke Thistle One of each from your angel
Who whispers sedition Who takes your clothes
of stone and gives you flesh Angel
In the morning my hips are broken and the ash
on the windowsill has a new name Angel
The sounds in the dark as you break me Is this
how someone grown gets born Angel
How you dream the guards take you away
for the heresy of your tenderness Angel
In the braid of us hard to tell one from the other
In the dark Two women Part ash Part angel
At one point as I was thinking about this lecture, I came up the steps from the 2 train to the Brooklyn Museum, and saw that ubiquitous frieze of the names of great men--and the one that caught my eye that day was Aeschylus. Which made me smile, because I once heard Toni Morrison answering questions at the 92nd Street Y, and someone asked, "When times are terrible and we lose our compass, we go to Toni Morrison. Who does Toni Morrison go to?", and she leaned briefly forward to the microphone and answered, "Aeschylus." And I was remembering when I first got to Columbia, and stood under that Butler Library frieze, and those names looked down on me like a pointed finger and made me feel like I'd never have a place in this world. But this recent afternoon I thought of Aeschylus not as a gatekeeper of social power, a segregator, but as a struggling maker--one who generously came to find me when I was fourteen, in my ignorance, in my illusion of aloneness, in my small New England town, when we read the Oresteia, one of my first hearings of art's arduous conversation, one of my first invitations into it. A maker in dialogue with other makers, from those who came before him to those who sat listening to him, to me, to Toni Morrison, to you. On the Columbia frieze there's Isaiah too, who before he was a name to be carved on public buildings was a man a little too open to the visitation, walking the streets of Jerusalem in what Abraham Heschel calls "his boundless yearning," with "a vision of the day when 'nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'"
Beautiful that the names you see here on this campus are women's names, and their intent isn't to make you feel small. (Hmm, in whose interests is it that you feel small? You're not, I've seen you.) When you come here you don't see the names of Muriel Rukeyser and June Jordan and Grace Paley, not yet, but they're here, as is the radical tradition in which they taught and worked and lived; and you see the name of Esther Raushenbush, daughter of Jewish refugees, who said, "Study of the arts is not merely a form of self-expression; it is a way for students to learn how to see"--and the name of Bessie Schönberg, who thought of herself less as a teacher than as a gardener, helping people to grow; who knew that "the elbow thinks, the knee thinks, the shoulder thinks, the sternum thinks, the tailbone thinks, and much more reliably than the head in a given situation and for certain needs"; who by these means taught "the overcoming of fear, the becoming free."
My hope is that the education you've made yourself here will require much less unlearning than mine did-- that its focus was not indoctrination or conformity but becoming free. I hope you've had a taste of what I think of as the part of Sarah Lawrence culture that misses something, as if it were a someone; you could call it democracy, or freedom, or justice, or peace--you could call it a new world--but we miss it. We want to smell it and taste it and breathe it and see its face. Its faces. We want it bad. We cover this up in various ways--with jokes, with fatigue, with complaining, with trivia, with changing the subject, with blinking away tears--but a lot of people here--a lot of the people in this room--enough to make a culture--want that new world the way you want a person you love and can't touch and can't get out of your mind. They're bound to it. They believe in it, helplessly. They think about it one way or another every day. They carry the hope for it everywhere they go. They want it and they're willing to work for it. And they want you to want it like that too.
I hope you've found here what this culture has tried to give you: a good boat. So in those times when you feel like the world has no place for you--when it seems fouled beyond redemption--when you feel like your heart is broken in ways that will never mend--you can remember what you've done here: your emancipatory education, I hope--its privileges and its demands. So you can be someone who welcomes the ordinary flesh-and-blood prophet instead of collaborating to destroy him. So you can stand for the green earth, in the face of those who gut and exploit and poison her. So you can weep to see the destruction our country is responsible for all over this world, and bend your beautiful minds toward creation instead. So you can be strong enough for life--not just when it's fun, but no matter what. Strong enough for what the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish--secretly a Sarah boy--called "the affliction of hope." Trusting that on the other side of fear and sorrow might be something raw and supple and tender and unexpected. Something new.
This is a piece of an elegy I wrote for Mahmoud Darwish, whose hand I shook in a crowded downstairs restaurant in Ramallah, who died two Augusts ago. The last seven words are his.
On your last night on this earth
did you dream/of horses The one tied to a mulberry tree
Before your father's place became/a place he watched with his head in his hands
The one you found wet in an almond grove/who'd forgotten her nationality
The one with letters tangled in her mane/who carried you to the seven gates
The first where you sat with a
free woman laughing/Drinking coffee and milk Pomegranate
The second whose bright made you close your eyes/The outdoor laundry of transformations
Bright salt cove and rocks and the word Mine/rinsed of its significance
Flags and bandages Isn't every flag a bandage/Bleached white Rebecoming starstuff in the sun
And before the third The gate of
music/Did you turn for one last look at the earth
To say goodbye to letters To the poems/written on cigarette boxes in jails
To bread To green To the alchemies/of the oud Making its human translations
Misery to beauty Dream to awakening/Sorrow to rapture Branch to song
Did you see the Gaza mothers
weeping/over the ruined traces of their encampments
The way you saw the mothers of Shatila/Of every ghetto camp assailed
Did you see the victims and the executioners/through the chaos of their mask exchanges
The way you saw through the lie of revenge/A flag over a wound that does not heal
Did you have to show your
documents/Your shyness Your refusal to hate
Your way of seeing a free woman's body/as a sign of a just world
Your remembering Your recalcitrance/Your affliction with the illness of hope
Your way of touching orphans with your eyes/the color of the Gaza dawn sea
Did you see the wheel of slaughter
turning/in its mute expressive repetitions
Did you see those whose way will be the earth's way/when the time of slaughter is done
Did you see letters Scattered in patterns/like stars Extinguished Radiant Persistent
Forming the gift of words like yours/Another day will come A womanly day
As those of you who've spent time in my office know, and those who've visited my studio, I like to put things on the walls; my brother says it's an artist's version of the guy in "The Exorcist" who papers his walls with pages of the Bible so Satan can't get in. One of the things I always put on my wall is this last quote, from historian William Appleman Williams: "A changing reality creates the need for a new social consciousness," he wrote, "and even impels men and women toward that new image of the world. But the new vision does not come automatically. It emerges slowly and painfully from the moral and intellectual imagination of specific men and women. If it does not come...then the old social consciousness is forced to be sufficient unto the need. Forced because there is no alternative, and forced because that is the only way to make it function. Force and the provocation of force are fundamentally alike in being the product of the failure of moral and intellectual imagination." "A new social consciousness," he said. And "specific men and women." That's not the names on the friezes of public buildings, not now. That's us. That's you, beautiful class of 2010, finishing the first tenth of the twenty-first century. As Al Green memorably says every year, before the lucky task of reading out all your names on graduation day, Let's get it on. Thank you.