The Pasture Gate

This post is the text of a speech I delivered at the SUNY Brockport’s academic convocation on August 26th, 2012.

Good afternoon.  It is a great thrill and honor to address you, future graduates of the College at Brockport.  Eight years ago I sat where you sit now.  All things considered, I was feeling pretty good.  Like you, I had braved the chaos of the bookstore with all of its confusing codes.  Like you, I had stopped wrinkling my eyebrows in complete bewilderment when someone referenced a mysterious document called “your DARS report.”  And like you, I had learned that walking the distance from the Student Union to the campus gym was a workout in itself.

However, there were two things that made me a bit different.  First, I was a college dropout.  When I was eighteen, my parents loaded up their station wagon and helped me hang curtains in my first dorm room.  The second time around, at twenty-four, I was in it alone.  Running late, I drove myself from Rochester to this very event, parked in a Faculty lot and received my first ticket from Parking and Transportation services.  It was the first of many parking tickets.        

Second, unlike most of you, I cradled my six-month-old son in a baby sling at my chest as I listened to the president’s remarks.  My son’s here today too, but if I tried to fit him back into the sling, I would probably injure both of us.

My parents gave me the very best chance to pursue my life in logical order.  I ignored their advice.  Now that my son is eight years old, I am just beginning to understand the grief that my choices must have caused them.  And if my son were beginning his college career here today, part of me would want to say: Do things in the right order! Blend in with the successful kids! Think only hard enough to make your professors happy!  I would want to say that, but it wouldn’t be right.

When my son begins college, I will do the hardest thing imaginable: let him go.  To do that, I will have to lift the latch on the pasture gate that holds a thousand sheep marked with my deepest fears.  I will watch the sheep push the gate open and rush at my son.  And over the din of their clattering hooves, I will call out words he cannot hear.

Work hard! I will shout.  Follow your gut!  No success or failure defines you as much as the quality of your love!

The sheep are our losses, our mistakes.  They trample us down, in succession or all at once, and it is impossible to dodge them all.  But I know a secret.  Each irrevocable mistake, each blinding grief that knocks you over, can also lift you up.  For each trampling sheep carries one hundred pounds of soft wool on his back.  It is up to you to gather it.  Even if their hooves are crushing your ribcage, even if the wool seems too far away to touch.  It is up to you to gather it.  

Thank you.