It was a splendid Monday morning, just right no matter what you may have planned. Billowing, transforming, and benign, cumulus clouds wandered carelessly across a blue heaven. Pike’s Peak, still capped in snow, gleamed through the pines, speechless. Fifteen thousand feet below, members of the 129th graduating class of Colorado College wondered what comes next.
Uncertain but delighted, these young people whose lives have been filled with juvenile endings and nervous beginnings, found themselves at another such moment. For a couple of hours, the celebrated graduates put aside the hard fact that something wonderful would be shuttered in a day or two, along with that squalid off-campus rental house they’ve inhabited, and who knows what was about to begin.
Parents in the crowd, including Alix’s mother and me, may have felt as if they had completed a four-year run up the mountain’s steep, exhausting length into the abiding snow fields, but, whew, it is all downhill from here. And among the parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and friends — butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, in infinite variety — the lovely morning was unmistakably for them and for their favored child.
If there is a time when confirmed adults may feel called upon to issue marching orders to the youthful cannon fodder sitting before them, it should not be commencement. After all, the mountain itself offered no advice. But sadly, orders, sometimes not so cleverly couched in calculated inspirational flourishes, are often the standard fare. The predictable messages — emptied now of all meaning — range from “change the world” to “save the planet.” As if the moment required that, vibrating with delight and anxiety as they were, what the graduates needed most was to be told that doing God’s own work had fallen now to them, that the butchers and bakers among us had botched their chance. And this, by a speaker, a cartoonist, who appeared to believe that he had done everything he could and almost, by himself, set the earth and her people back on the right course, but now he was going to chill for a while and turn the job over to 21-year-olds whose heads ached in the bright light.
Katherine Lee Bates, whose 19th Century plea we sang at the ceremony’s end, would have been a terrific commencement speaker. “America! America! God shed his grace on thee,” she wrote, “And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.” But, of course, she was otherwise occupied, and so what might have been nourishing notes of humility, grace, and the need for important partners were absent.
The president of the college, his tenure about to end, was a realist, but an affectionate one. He had known these kids when they were kids, and he hoped their lives — “slacker or striver,” he said, addressing them individually in unvarnished terms — beyond college would be rich, full, and generous. He did not overload the assignment.
The most telling wish for these handsome and lovely novices at life was not spoken at Monday’s event. Instead it was a phrase written by Anne Carson, a highly regarded Canadian-born classicist who received an honorary degree from the college. Attempting to describe “what a poet knows,” Ms. Carson had written that poetry transforms “what is innumerable and headed for oblivion into a timeless notation. Excising all that is not grace.” Innumerable and headed for oblivion, that’s us.
And so, for us, she had set down the inscription for a life yet to be lived. Excise all that is not grace. And, she might have added, smile generously and let the political cartoonists juggle the earth in its orbit as well as they can. Their notations are not timeless.