In the week after graduation, the week after a three week push that would have stressed me in my old normal of physical health, this body has just enough, just the minimum, just barely the ability to summon the strength to speak, to eat, to sleep. It is my look at the wall, lean the chair back, just go where thought goes time. And my mind, my mind is swirling, not from getting through but from getting through with the joy of beginnings and endings and understanding informed by so many commencements and graduations. Intertwined with my own dis eased matriculation, disengaging this body bit by tiny bit, a delicious painful bittersweet fatigue struggles to compensate through renewed presence in the here and now. I get this way, this tired, this vulnerable, and I start over-thinking the endgame, forgetting the moment, hooking into ALS humanness, forgetting to savor this place as the steaming cup of coffee or sweet piece of fruit that it is. No more with the religious, the metaphysical, the Buddha, the godhead, Allah, Krishna, the Dao, the Christ, the mystical. This week is just pure and raw human compensation, specific in its consequence, peaceful in its appearance, troubled by questions of affect and effect that inspire a fool’s search for ancient footprints left in shifting sands of existence, present only for a few seconds between wave upon wave upon wave relentlessly smoothing life’s shorelines. In the week after graduation, we humans ponder the footprints we leave, whether the tracks are in mud or sand or snow.
I think and in such thought, I am not unique.
At this time of year, commencement speakers toss concepts we have never experienced into the air like mortarboards with tassel tails. Words like forever, immortal, eternal, always, wing through the ethers even though by all available physical evidence, we can only discern finite, temporal, a whisper in the winds of our overarching mortality. In the month of May in schools and colleges everywhere, talk about footprints in the sand, making your mark, changing the world for the better, becoming the best person you can be, echoes through liturgies of ending-beginnings. I have heard every commencement exhortation, baccalaureate and post-baccalaureate speech, ever charging graduates to use their academic ending as a new life beginning. I don’t begrudge these moments; there is a sweetness to them that defies the grudge. But I have heard enough of them to know that they rarely if ever hit their mark.
At this time of year, high school students assure each other that they will be friends forever, celebrating the history they have accrued together, blissfully unaware most of them, of the unbelievable challenges ahead. I often ache with bittersweet emotion at the loveliness these sentiments express, for each symbolizes time together, insufficiently savored, too often rushed as something to get through, too soon susceptible to constructed mythos, so that the real legacy is lost beneath the layers of life’s specific requirements, duties rather than opportunities, overwhelming the soul with responsibility and worry and love unperceived. I pick at that ache as a crusted scab, partially lifted by additional scrapes, weeping a little at the disturbance, knowing not to rip the entire covering away. And in spite of my best intentions of living in the moment, of having seen it all before, commencement causes me to hope for meaning, legacy, marks, footprints I can no longer leave.
It is the most natural thing in the world to ponder the meaning of one’s own life, to ask what might be the “lasting” effects of one’s time in this world.
Legacy is considered by the great and ordinary. It is not unique to our time, but resides with all times. “Look on my works, ye mighty and despair,” wrote Bysshe Shelly in Ozymandias. In rereading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals in the community of my doctoral students, I was struck by Abraham Lincoln’s worries that the founders of the nation had met all the meaningful challenges in their time, leaving little to do to distinguish himself in his own. “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition,” [Lincoln] wrote. “I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.” And Kearns Goodwin doesn’t limit her observations to Lincoln. She notes that Alexis de Toqueville saw in Americans the determination to raise their station in life so that they would be better than their fathers before them (remember, she is talking about MEN in the 1800’s). Knowing what Lincoln and the nation would face, their concerns now seem quaint and unnecessary. But they indicate our human need for legacy.
Great effort is invested in meaningful legacy. We build buildings, sponsor events, render art, even go so far as to bury our dead so they won’t decompose. In the academy, we invest meaning through honors–cum laude designations, recognizing and congratulating the best academic work, implying that in their brief history, our alumnae have created lasting testaments. We have the fading pictures; the black and white wheel treads of times gone by to prove the point. We name the edifice as physical manifestation of our desire to remain. The representations of times gone by, everything from pre-civilization fossils to Stravinsky ballets is a physical act, shaping the energy of the environment into recognizable forms, intentional or chance confluence perceptible to later generations as the legacy that will distinguish us. We invest enormous resource in the endeavor.
It should be no surprise that I am thinking about the footprints of my own life. The union of dis ease and commencement make it impossible not to reflect a little bit. Knowing that footprints are physical can trouble even the most mystical of souls, and for me with ALS, as my physical capacities diminish, I find footprints harder to discern. To quote the great 60’s philosopher J. Hendrix, “Castles made of sand melts [sic] into the sea eventually.” The Christ knew this, preferring stone foundations to sand in his metaphors. Having seen too many places in the world where the stone has eroded into weirdly carved structures, hinting only a little bit of the mountain that was, I put little trust in such physical manifestation. Perhaps the most troubling dis ease of all is the inner fear that all of our footprints will yield to fire and water and wind and earth.
Yet, in my heart, I know that footprints exist, the sands shift into lasting effects of the human that was, is and shall be. As a teacher, I have peered into the hearts of children and adults, and I see them projecting forward the sum total of their humanity come before us and yet to come. I have seen humanity’s goodness and its evil, and how each of these imprints on the soul of a child. And all of it is the resulting mark of our mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, known persons and unknown, back and back and back, and into the future beyond. Even as I watch my sons struggle to find their place, my daughters in law creating their own legacies, my students seeking the truth that works for them, my true love gamely seeking the key to the next generation’s ways of learning, I know that somewhere there is a footprint of what is to come; not some fossilized insect trapped in amber, but a living energy projected forward. The mark is indelibly left on humanity’s future, and it will echo down the ages until time and space are unable to escape the black hole gravity of their own hubris.
And then there must come commencement and in that commencement, the footprint of one lost to the ages.