For our GSU 2020 graduates, in the time of the Corona virus
today at 2:41 pm
This graduation isn’t like others. We’re all tucked into our homes, cooking, working out, creating….or not. We might be sitting on the couch, curled up watching Netflix and eating cookies, bored but unable to muster the energy to do much else. Maybe we’re depressed, anxious, afraid.
Those of you with school-aged children are your child’s guide through online school. You’re doing your own school work at the same time, maybe struggling with the same things they are: how can you be engaged, how can you get all of this work done?
Some of you are working from home. Some of you have lost your jobs. Worse still, you may be ill or caring for someone who is. Maybe you’ve lost someone and were separated from them at the end, now waiting for a time when you can gather to honor their lives.
I used to have this fantasy that would crop up perennially when I felt overwhelmed with work. I was in prison—falsely accused of course—maybe for only a year. But I could have all of the books I wanted. I could read and read and read. And every day I’d work out. After a year I’d leave my cell well-read and buff. Relaxed, ready to face the world.
Well, I’ve got my Corona virus prison and I can’t read to save my life. I have four or five books scattered around the house that I’m trying to read. I get through a few paragraphs and have no idea what I’ve just read. My concentration is gone.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 I faced the same inability to read. It was as if my own story was just too big to allow any others to speak. Sometimes there’s no escape.
As crisis wears on and as you move away from a traumatic reality, you realize that you’re grieving. Grieving for a lost world, for a lost normal, for a lost vitality. And you move and circle back through cycles of denial and anger, sorrow and acceptance.
We are a grieving nation at the moment. I try to remind myself that seasons of grief are normal. They are part of life. Parts of us wither and die with the waning light and bitter winds. But as Tom Waits tell us, “You can never hold back Spring.” New parts of us, old parts recreated perhaps, begin to grow. Not because of the suffering. They are not gifts or silver linings. They are just normal. All things come to an end and new things always begin.
Oprah Winfrey tells of a story she heard from her mentor, Maya Angelou. It ended with the image of boarding a plane in a storm, pouring rain and thunder and lightning. But as the plane takes off, gains altitude, it rises above the storm and there is sun. She reminds us, “The sun is always there.”
Every year I look forward to graduation. I pull out my graduation robe and funny hat, remind myself which side the tassel is supposed to be on, find comfortable shoes and head off to Tinley Park. I get in line with my colleagues and I feel a thrill at the music, the pomp and circumstance, of honoring you, the graduates.
Graduation is the cap of the experience of education. All of the clothes and the music and the words are symbolic to honor you and to honor the intellect and heart of what we do. The colors all mean something.
My hood has purple and white satin on it, symbolizing the institution that granted my degree, Texas Christian University. Go horned frogs. The blue velvet down the front is the color of the discipline of philosophy, representing the Doctor of Philosophy degree, the PhD.
Most of our robes are black, but my friend Genie wears a rich brown robe, which is Brown University’s chosen color. Even the sleeves are symbolic. You can tell the graduate has a Masters degree from the distinctive drape that falls a foot or so below the sleeve.
Some of you wear cords around your neck, symbolizing honor societies and the DDP program.
The graduation ceremony is packed with meaning. I think we all deserve a Corona shaped pin to wear on our lapels for this year, to symbolize this terrible time and our ability to survive it. To help remind us that what we’ve achieved this year matters.
Our education does matter, and I’m proud that you’re graduating. You have learned so much, from math to writing, from counseling to accounting, the breadth of what the institution has to teach. You have also learned about perseverance and hard work, about when to cut corners and when to stay up all night. You’ve learned that learning comes with sacrifice. Most good things do.
So in this time of social isolation, I encourage you to have your own ceremony. Pack it full of meaning and symbolism. Create a wreath or a collage with images and words that represent your time at Governors State. If you have your robe and hat, wear them and take a picture. Be goofy or solemn. Tape messages to the cap. Hug the family you live with and give a speech in which you thank them. Give them and yourself the gift of gratitude for becoming a vetted member of the educated group.
This graduation isn’t like others. So revel in that. Make it special by being kind to yourself, by creating a moment in which you can just be. Know that you are growing, that parts of you are pushing up through the warming ground and are readying yourself to blossom. Mourn for what is lost, accept that loss is inevitable, and find time to celebrate that you are here and ready.
And as Oprah Winfrey reminds us, as the plane takes off and leaves behind the raging storm, rising above it all, “The sun is always there.” Somewhere it is shining.
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