Class of 2017

Solonon Botwick Ries about to deliver addressWe have arrived.

Welcome! My fellow students, my dear faculty, my comrades on staff, trustees, parents, families, friends, and you—of course—the class of 2017: welcome. It brings me great joy to be with you all today—to share this room. And I am grateful for the time to offer a few reflections, to stand on my soapbox one last time, and to say a prayer of goodbye.

Looking out at you all, well, I see a very full room. But it is not only full of us here in the flesh. I see our ancestors are here, too. And I want to welcome them: those we carry with us—the extensive, timeless audience for our ceremony today. So I welcome our grandparents and grandparents’ grandparents, our Bubbe and Zaydes, our Ōbāchan, our Ōjįsan. I welcome the doctors and doulas who delivered us. I welcome the seed-savers and bread-makers who fed us. I welcome the many things that have accompanied our families through change, through hardship: family heirlooms and suitcases of relics, photographs, folk-songs. In the spirit of the day, I acknowledge our many mothers—the people and places who have nurtured us, nourished us—the great shoulders that we stand on. I welcome these generations who have come before—our inspirations, whoever they may be: past teachers, past lovers, past friends. They are here with us today. So I pray: May we remember, may we celebrate with them. May we remark: What a marvelous attendance!

I believe that our ancestors have been here all along, though. Our extensive audience is not just the context for today—this ritual of graduation, this 70th commencement. I think an education at Marlboro inhabits the world of these ancestors. In a phrase: We study in relationship to time. We are joined in our writing, in creasing the spine of a book, in a performance, in seminar discussion, in murals and sculptures, in a Commonplace journal: we receive the past, dancing with the steps that our ancestors have laid! And it is an honor.

And it is a responsibility. This dancing with ancestors, this inheriting time, it has never been more significant: for we live in a world of forgetting. This is the beauty of Marlboro, the potency of the liberal arts, power of critical thinking: in relationship to the past, we bring it forward—and we bring it forward renewed. We dance the dance in our own dance. And doing so, we come face to face with ancestors that we may wish we forget. But we cannot forget. We cannot escape the wake of the actions before us—if we try, we will be at the whim of the waves, and the water is rising. No, we place ourselves in the midst of the swirling world of suffering. At Marlboro, we study in entanglement with the past, critically engaging the legacies that have brought about such immense suffering: systems of oppression, cultural forms and social structures that cause harm, cause hunger. Our work is a critical inheritance of these technologies of self and society, these ways that we have waged war on each other, waged war on the Earth. Indeed, we are studying at the edge of time. So I believe it is a tremendous summons, an urgent opportunity for our responsibility: to study at Marlboro in a time where Black Lives Matter, to study at Marlboro at a time where Women’s Rights are Human Rights, to study at Marlboro at a time where Immigrants Make America Great, to study at Marlboro in a time where Climate Change is Real.

But I can imagine what you are thinking. My fellow students, I know: Marlboro does not feel like belonging to this world of urgent issues. Here on this hilltop, we are alone. The wind blows, snow falls, stars are most of company. There is no cell service, perhaps even the power is out, and the things we learn seem far away from our own livelihood. Study seems opaque : just work. The ancestry that joins us—who? All I have is a stack of silent books. Indeed, this vision of a Marlboro education I am offering today is not a given. We feel isolated. And we are.

This inheritance I am speaking of is not a fact. It is a skill. It is a capacity of our storytelling. As the novelist and critic Rebecca Solnit writes “Stories are compasses and architecture: we navigate by them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. [So] to love someone”—or a community—“is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” In an education at Marlboro, you travel from here to there. As storytellers: as philosophers, as political theorists, as improvisors, as graphic novelists and graffiti artists, we cultivate our imagination—this capacity to question, to listen, to constantly open ourselves to the light of a new perspective. We learn how to inherit.

And today, my friends, we put our Marlboro education to good use: we practice remembering. For today is the beginning of Marlboro as a memory. We are graduating alongside the place: it is now a companion, something we carry for the time-being. Indeed, to appreciate the significance of commencement, we need a new language—a vocabulary beyond absence and presence, beyond loss. For we are not losing Marlboro. We have just arrived. In a sense, graduation is an alchemical ritual: we are transmuting Marlboro. Of course, the change is not in the pompous circumstance: the robes, the speeches, the applause, moving a tassel a few inches. The alchemy is in our hearts: can we open ourselves to inhabit this tender space of memory, to accept the passing of time, to savor the lastingness of its beauty?

So today, we practice welcoming Marlboro as an ancestor. For we are left with the textures of memory: the warmth of afternoon sun careening through the tall Dining Hall windows; the soft hiss of snow falling on crisp leaves; the reverberation of footsteps through the library floor; the dark stain of wooden cottage walls; a racket of ladybugs in the window-frame; the smell of incense in the Darymple hallway; the rough teacup on your fingertips.

Memories live in the life of things. Do not forget them. Our time here lives in the life of these material ancestors. Do not forget it.

So carry a stone in your pocket, my friends. Remember Marlboro. May it become smooth with the warmth of your hands. May time make of it something beautiful, something new.

Thank you.

A hundred bows to you all.