Editor’s note: The following is the prepared text of the Baccalaureate address titled “Life Work” given by Associate Professor of English Sarah Heidt ’97 to the Class of 2018, delivered on May 18, 2018. Watch video of the speech here, or read a Q&A with Heidt about her speech.
Those of you who have taken classes with me or been in department meetings with me know that I like to start things with a brief stretch of quiet, offering everyone time to settle in and get ready for what’s going to happen next. During this weekend’s whirlwind of events, that quiet feels particularly important, and so I invite you to take the next two minutes just to be here, settling in to your surroundings and your whole body. Before I hit start on my timer, though, I’ll make one other request: for the next little while, stow your phone. Give it a rest, and give yourself a rest from it. Don’t worry about tweeting, or snapchatting, or recording. Try just to be here. If your mind wanders off, that’s okay; just let it go. If you get bored, that’s okay too; just spend some time with that experience. Take in whatever you can, and know that it will be enough. What you need will reach you somehow.
And now: two minutes. [Two minutes of silence.]
Thank you. And before I begin, I want to dedicate this address to my friend and colleague Amy Blumenthal, who died at the end of May last year and whom I owe more than I can tell you. She is missed by so many, in so many ways.
Dear members of the Class of 2018: though I have spoken to so many of you so often about so many things over the past four years, the last time I spoke to all of you at once, we were at Life on the Hill in Rosse Hall, back in August 2014. I was feeling new to Kenyon too, that fall, even though I had graduated 17 years earlier and had come back as a faculty member in 2004. When you arrived, I had been away from campus for three years in a row, and the only current students I knew were the 22 who had participated in the Kenyon-Exeter Program the year before. Like you, I was moving in to a first-year residence, Norton Hall, and I was still trying to get unpacked and settled in. And like you (though differently), I was feeling overwhelmed by the blisteringly swift approach of the new academic year.
Every year I spoke at Life on the Hill, my rules for myself were the same, and simple: I would say only what was completely honest and what I felt most needed to be said. Our theme for Life on the Hill that year was “the most important things.” Sometime between Opening Convocation and meeting with my first-year advisees in my Norton apartment — probably, in fact, around the time you were being ushered to dinner by your upper-class counselors — I realized what I wanted or even needed to offer you that night. Partly in the interest of symmetry, but mostly because I don’t want to lose my nerve, I’m going to begin now where I ended then.
In the Zen monastery where I spent as much time as I could from 2010 to 2015, and where I lived for half of 2012, most days end with this chant, the Evening Gatha:
Let me respectfully remind you—
Life and death are of supreme importance
Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost
Each of us should strive to awaken….
Take heed. Do not squander your life.
In a sense, I could stop right there and already have said everything I most want to tell you today, everything I hope you’ll take away from this Baccalaureate ceremony and even from your years at Kenyon. But why would I waste this adrenaline surge? And so it is that I’ll spend some time elaborating on this verse, constellating some other texts around it and seeing if I can bring us full circle by giving you a sense of why it is so important to me.
What I may or may not have told you, back in August 2014, is that I had been, for quite some time, seriously contemplating quitting my job. Not my life work, which I still felt reasonably sure was (to borrow Virginia Woolf’s phrasing) to pursue Truth with all my faculties and to do what I could to encourage others in that endeavor. Just my job, the chief venue where I was trying to do my work. I began your first year here feeling it to be a highly provisional one for me — a year in which I would continue trying to discern whether or not I could stay in my academic career. That night in Rosse Hall, I was chanting for myself as much as for you. I was trying to remind myself, respectfully, to stay vigilant about the most important things — life and death — and to keep myself alive to the myriad ways that time passes swiftly, the myriad ways I lose opportunities, the myriad ways I keep myself from awakening. In a way, that night’s talk and chant were also an experiment: I was offering you the most important things I had, and if they had fallen short or been rejected, that might have been a sign to me that I was indeed in the wrong place.
Instead, I found almost immediately that I’d hit a nerve — or several. One after another, members of your class approached me in Norton, or on the street, or on Middle Path, or via email, letting me know that what I’d said had resonated with you, whether you appreciated that I’d spoken frankly about living with mental illness or that I’d told you that life at Kenyon wouldn’t always be easy or that I’d assured you all that you’re fundamentally okay. (You’re still fundamentally okay, by the way.) And as you spoke, one after another, I began to realize, or perhaps to remember, one thing that happens in this place when we’re at our best: we grow together. We enable one another to keep learning and growing — to be unfinished, to be works in progress, to know that the work of life never ends.
Except that it does, and that’s one of the hardest truths I’m bringing before you today, one that I barely know how to articulate, much less how to handle. One of these days, and it could be any day now, the work of your life will end. The work of my life will end. Maybe we’ll get a warning. But maybe we won’t.
What do we do in the face of that knowledge? How can we bear it? How might we use it?
Let us inhabit every day of our lives, every single day given to us, as fully as possible. And yet what does that mean, and how do we do it? Perhaps more importantly, how do we do it well?
What more important questions are there?
One of my favorite pieces of 19th-century writing is the Conclusion to “Studies in the History of the Renaissance,” a slim, potent volume of art history and aesthetic theory by Walter Pater, published in 1873. In it, writing of “that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves,” Pater asserts:
Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life…. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us…is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. (119-120)
“[W]e are all under sentence of death,” Pater goes on to write, “with a sort of indefinite reprieve…we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest…in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time” (120).
Some 55 years later, near the end of “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf would urge her audience to “live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.” “[I]t is much more important to be oneself than anything else,” she claims. “Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves” (109). She makes clear that living an invigorated life, as much and as intensely in the presence of reality as possible, is not simply a matter of self-gratification or self-betterment. “[W]hen I ask you to write more books,” she tells her audience of would-be writers, “I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large” (my emphasis, 108). For reading great books, she argues, “seems to have a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life. Those are the enviable people who live at enmity with unreality; and those are the pitiable who are knocked on the head by the thing done without knowing or caring” (109).
Books and ideas — the stuff you’ve spent much of the past four years wrestling with — have long been a crucial part of my own attempts to “live at enmity with unreality.” I am certain that Pater’s Conclusion to “The Renaissance” resonated with me the way it did when I first read it because it reminded me, despite the century separating their publications, of an impassioned exhortation from Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Dillard warns:
There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage. I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright….
Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock…a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you. (268-269)
When I first read “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” early in my time as a Kenyon student, passages like this one made it perform just the kind of “couching operation on the senses” that Woolf describes, leaving me wanting to see the world more intensely and thereby to learn to be in it more fully. By the time I graduated from Kenyon, I had borrowed a line from Adrienne Rich and declared myself “a woman sworn to lucidity” (307). I wanted a clarity of vision and emotion and imagination and purpose that I am still seeking today and every day.
When I graduated from Kenyon — exactly 21 years ago today — I suspect that I thought I was a lot closer to that clarity, and to some kind of lasting understanding of the world and of myself, than I actually was — though I knew even then that the most valuable thing I’d learned here was how very little I knew. But there’s a reason that a chant like the Evening Gatha gets chanted every night: clarity, awakening, the resolution to inhabit one’s life fully and use it wisely and well — all of these things, these most important things, take time. They’re ongoing processes, not one-time achievements. And they’re far from solo efforts.
Much of what I’ve said so far has been about living our own lives well: sensing more and better, fighting unreality, being fully in our days. And that’s crucial, to be sure: I urge you to take full responsibility for your life, to cultivate it as thoroughly as you can, to take your time and to use it — to spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon, and to spend them deliberately and uncompromisingly. Work to strike that difficult balance between living intensely in this immediate moment, as though there might not be many moments left to you, and living intensely and ambitiously for all those future moments I fervently hope you’ll have. Try to live not in despair at how ephemeral and uncertain our lives are but rather in fascination and awe at the richness of what’s all around you for the duration of the time you’re here. Try to remember that you are already fundamentally okay, even as you strive to become the most open, compassionate, creative and generous version of yourself you can be.
But I also urge you not to forget that — whether you like it or not — your life is bound up inextricably with the lives of others, both those you’ve chosen to have in your life and those you might never have chosen, both those nearest to you and those you will never meet or even know about. What do you owe those who surround you? How does your way of living allow for or impede others’ lives? What are your life’s consequences for others? My Zen teacher used to say that we are all responsible for this whole catastrophe; that was one of his ways of reminding us of our beautifully, terribly real interdependence, our deeply intermeshed existences. One of my yoga teachers puts it another way at the end of each of her classes. “I know that your next exhale is part of my next inhale,” she tells us, “so I thank you for sharing your practice and your breath with me.” Look around you: by virtue of your breath alone, your body now carries some small part of the bodies of those who have surrounded you for the past hour. We cannot help but go on together. Why don’t we at least try to do so more generously, more skillfully, with genuine curiosity about and care for one another?
A handful of you were there at the seminar table in the basement of Sunset Cottage in fall 2014 when a passage from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway” threw the mysteries of human relationship — our radical proximity to and difference from one another — into newly sharp relief for me. It’s a passage I’d read many times, in a novel I’d taught many times, but somehow, that fall, it struck me more forcefully than before. The title character, Clarissa Dalloway, stands in her drawing-room, looking across the street and in at her elderly neighbor’s window, while her neighbor climbs her stairs and moves around in her bedroom. Clarissa has been thinking about how much she likes life, and how cruel others’ ideas of love and religion seem to her, finally asking herself, “Did she not wish everybody merely to be themselves?” (123). As she watches her neighbor, she thinks, “[T]hat’s the miracle, that’s the mystery; that old lady, she meant, whom she could see going from chest of drawers to dressing-table. She could still see her. And the supreme mystery…was simply this: here was one room; there another. Did religion solve that, or love?” (124-125). Each of these rooms is a whole, enclosed life, with its own mysterious, even miraculous integrity. They are entirely distinct, and yet each has the potential to affect the other, with or without the other’s knowledge.
For all the sublime gaps Annie Dillard exhorts us to stalk and go up into, “where the creeks and winds pour down,” the gap that has most haunted and fascinated and challenged me, especially in recent years, is this one: the gap between my life, my consciousness, and the lives and consciousnesses of others, including those closest and best known to me. I was glad that President Decatur read Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” as part of his remarks at the Senior Dinner on Wednesday night, because its last lines are among my favorites, as well: “Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) / is the human voice, // and are we not of interest to each other?” (185). I hope that we are of interest to each other, and not because we somehow see everyone around us as players in our own very interesting lives, and not because we somehow want to play some predetermined role in someone else’s very interesting life. I hope that we are of interest to each other by dint of our sheer humanity, our mutual entanglement in what George Eliot calls, late in her novel “Middlemarch,” “the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance,” our collective involvement in this world’s “involuntary, palpitating life” (741).
I hope that we are of interest to each other because each of us needs others. We need others to pay generous, careful attention to us and to treat us with dignity and respect, and others, in turn, need us to attend to them just as carefully and generously, with just as much dignity and respect.
And what if our collective human need and our unavoidable interdependence are the finest reasons for us to believe in and to cultivate our individual human lives as fully and fiercely as possible, for as many days as we have left to us? “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” asks Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” near the end of that novel (691). What if all of our learning to see and inhabit each moment, to live wholly and awakened in the presence of reality, with all its complexities, is what makes us able to recognize when and how and why to make some life less difficult than it might otherwise have been? What if we make that learning, that awakening, the work of our lives?
I want to offer you two more things, each with a vision of human relationship and flourishing, of love and of freedom.
The first: for about twenty years, from high school all the way through my first years as a faculty member here, I kept a brown paper poster hanging within view of my bed. It bears the text of Olive Schreiner’s short allegory “Life’s Gifts”:
I saw a woman sleeping. In her sleep, she dreamt Life stood before her, and held in each hand a gift — in the one hand Love, in the other Freedom. And she said to the woman, “Choose!”
And the woman waited long: and she said, “Freedom!”
And Life said, “Thou hast well chosen. If thou hadst said, ‘Love,’ I would have given thee that thou didst ask for; and I would have gone from thee, and returned to thee no more. Now, the day will come when I shall return. In that day I shall bear both gifts in one hand.”
I heard the woman laugh in her sleep. (115-116)
That poster helped me keep my heart fierce and (mostly) hopeful and (mostly) patient through a lot of loneliness and a lot of doubt about whether the gifts of love and freedom would ever arrive at the same time. If it helps you too, hang on to it.
And the other is one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite novels, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” It arrives at the novel’s very end, as one main character, Paul D, trying to figure out how to articulate his love for another main character, Sethe, finds himself thinking of his friend Sixo and the woman he loved:
There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” (Morrison 321)
May you all find friends of your minds, those intimates who, whatever the nature of their relationship to you, help you gather your pieces and come to know yourselves. May you all have the good fortune to be friends of others’ minds. And may you recognize and relish how good it is — what grace it is — both to have someone be a friend of your mind and to be someone who can befriend another’s. This work, too, is life work.
There are so many other things I want to say to you. I want to offer you Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Never flinch” (5.213). I want to offer you Archie Ammons’s short poem “Poetry to the Rescue”: “You must be / nearly lost to / be (if / found nearly) / found” (204). I want to offer you Rebecca Solnit: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). I want to talk to you about yoga, and grief, and fear, and forgiveness, and joy. I want to give you more of my love.
But you don’t need any more things from me. You’re okay. You’ve got this. And so I will offer you my thanks that you chose me to speak to you today, and I will end where I ended my first address to you nearly four years ago:
Do not squander your life.
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe.” Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2010, Graywolf, 2010, p. 185.
Ammons, A. R. “Poetry to the Rescue.” The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons, vol. 2, Norton, 2017, p. 204.
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. 1856. Oxford UP, 1993.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 1974. Perennial-Harper, 1985.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1871-2. Oxford UP, 1996.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1987. Vintage-Random House, 2004.
Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. 1873. Oxford UP, 2010.
Rich, Adrienne. “I Dream I’m the Death of Orpheus.” Collected Poems: 1950-2012, Norton, 2016, p. 307.
Schreiner, Olive. “Life’s Gifts.” Dreams, Boston, 1891, pp. 115-116.
Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 2004. Haymarket, 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Harvest-Harcourt, 2005.
-----. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. Harvest-Harcourt, 2005.