New-Student Convocation Address 2016
By Alan Brew, associate professor of English
It is wonderful to be here with you this afternoon, under a tent, old friends and new, just a short walk from the largest body of fresh water in the world.
I’m going to begin today by sharing parts of a story with you. The story was written by Toni Morrison, whom some of you may know as the author of Beloved or The Bluest Eye. In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The story I’m sharing is from Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, which was first published in 1977.
The main character of this novel is an individual whom everyone refers to as “Milkman.” Milkman acquired this nickname when a neighborhood busybody spied his mother breastfeeding him well beyond the age that was common in that community.
Symbolically, though, the nickname is a signal that Milkman is an individual who has not successfully passed from childhood into adulthood. As Milkman himself observes, he is a person who does “nothing” and who has “never acted independently.” His life is “pointless, aimless,” and he is “bored” with everybody and everything.
As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Milkman’s failure to do anything is increasingly problematic: his best friend tells him that “if things ever got tough,” Milkman would “melt,” that he is “not a serious person”; his girlfriend, dismayed by his indifference, has attempted to kill him each month for the past six, and, in a climactic scene, his sister tells him that he is a “sad, pitiful, stupid, selfish, hateful man” who has “pissed” his last in their house.
After that exchange, Milkman decides that he needs to get away for a while.
And, it is at this point that Milkman’s story becomes universal. Nearly all cultures have rites of passage that facilitate and ritualize important transitions in a person’s life. The passage from adolescence to adulthood is one of these transitions, and across cultures, the rites associated with this transition typically have a number of common elements. These include:
• a separation from an individual’s family and community;
• a journey that often requires the individual to cross water or other thresholds;
• trials and challenges that might be physical, emotional, or intellectual in nature;
• and, when the individual is successful in meeting these trials, a return and reintegration with the individual’s family and community.
Milkman’s departure from home is also the point where his story connects to each of you who marched across the bridge this afternoon.
Although I hope that none of you are being pursued by angry, ice pick-wielding lovers and that none of you have been banished from your homes by exasperated siblings, you have, in fact, begun a rite of passage over the past weeks that is integral to our culture. You have left family and friends; you have journeyed to Northland; you have experienced some initial challenges on your orientation trips, and this afternoon you crossed Bay City Creek to join a community of learners who will challenge and test you in a variety of ways.
After Milkman departs from his home, he also moves through the stages and experiences common to rites of passage, and I’d like to share Morrison’s description of one of these experiences.
“Gingerly, [Milkman] parted the brush and walked a little way into the woods. He didn’t see even a trace of a track. But as he kept on a bit, he heard water and followed the sound, which seemed to be just ahead of the next line of trees. He was deceived. He walked for fifteen minutes before he came to it.
“Cross it, [Circe’d] said, and he thought there would be a bridge of some sort. There was none. He looked across and saw hills. [The cave] must be there Right there. . . . He sat down, took off his shoes and socks, stuffed the socks in his pocket, and rolled up his pants. Holding his shoes in his hand, he waded in. Unprepared for the coldness of the water and the slimy stones at the bottom, he slipped to one knee and soaked his shoes trying to break his fall. He righted himself with difficulty and poured the water out of his shoes. Since he was already wet, there was no point in turning back; he waded on out. After half a minute, the creek dropped six inches and he fell again, only now he went completely under. . . .”
I’ve shared this passage at length because it illustrates what many of us here at Northland believe is essential to your success as you navigate this important rite of passage we call college. Although we allowed you to use the bridge across Bay City Creek this afternoon, soon you, like Milkman, are going to have roll up your pants and wade in. When you do, you will not always be prepared, you will slip on slimy stones, but you musn’t turn back; instead, you must wade on out until you are fully immersed—until you are fully engaged.
What you immerse yourselves in will vary, of course, but there are at least four things I encourage each of you to wade fully into.
Your classes and academic studies are the first of these.
Learning is not a passive activity and an education is not something you can purchase—you cannot just fill in your billing information and then check out. Instead, learning is a journey of discovery.
Your faculty members and peers will accompany you on this journey; they’ll help you determine which directions you might go and what paths to take, but they won’t carry you along. You will need to wade in to your assignments, read the words on the page, work the equations, fill the beakers, speak up and give voice to your ideas. Sometimes you’ll struggle, you’ll slip and have to pour water out of your shoes, but you’ll also come to know the deep rewards that result from being fully present and engaged. You’ll feel the thrill of making connections and original discoveries. And, in doing so, you will prove yourself capable of being a full, contributing member of this collegium.
Second, I encourage you to immerse yourself in community.
Much of your formal learning will occur in classes, but we live in communities and now is the time to deepen your understanding of how these communities work as well as your understanding of the places and roles you will occupy within them.
Your dorms, the Northland campus, Ashland, are all communities of which you are de facto a member. Take time to engage with them. Step out of your room and into the common spaces of your dorm, spend time in the community garden, go dancing on the first Friday of every month, have lunch at Buddies, join the local archery club, try out for a play at the Chequamegon Theatre Association, vote.
Remember, too, that you are part of natural as well as human communities.
Follow the twists and turns of Bay City Creek through the Ravine, go paddle boarding with a friend at Solstice Outdoors, go climbing at Bob Rock, brook trout fishing on the Marengo River, or hiking on the North Country Trail. Hunt ducks in the Fish Creek Sloughs, as Sigurd Olson did; Ski out onto the ice of Chequamegon Bay in the dark of a new moon and watch for the northern lights over Long Island.
As you immerse yourself in these communities, explore the various roles that you might play within them. When do you lead and when do you follow? How might your unique gifts enrich communities and assure their sustained health?
Third, I hope that you will immerse yourself in relationships—with friends, with intimate partners, with yourself.
Prior to his journey, Milkman failed to do this, he refused to engage with those around him, choosing instead to bounce from one superficial party to the next, and in time, he became bored with everybody—including himself.
But people are not boring. They are formed from the dust of stars. They are how the universe has become aware of itself. They are at once maddening and magical in their complexity, and every single one of us is perfectly unique.
To be truly, compassionately in relationship with one another requires an investment of time, and energy, and emotion; it requires us to be immersed in the complexities of others. Relationships are messy.
But the opportunity to be in relationship with one another is also one of life’s greatest gifts—and when fully realized, the source of our greatest joys.
So, turn off your phone, stick it deep in your backpack, and go for a long walk with a new friend; ask your roommate how she’s doing and really, truly listen to what she says in response; write a letter to someone you care about and tell him how he has enriched your life; snuggle close to your lover and learn to communicate your love without words.
And don’t forget to plumb the depths of the relationship that you have with yourself. You’ll find some scary, confusing aspects of yourself in those depths, but if you continue to wade in and refuse to turn away from what you find, you’ll also discover astounding beauty, talent, and wonder.
As e.e.cummings reminds us, it is not until we believe in ourselves that “we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
Which brings me to my final recommendation–to immerse yourself in mystery and the unknown.
It is human nature to shy away from the unknown, to live within the boundaries of what is known, predicable, and comfortable. We like to be safe, and we find all kinds of reasons to avoid what we can’t fully understand or control. But life is full of things that we don’t—and can’t—understand or control.
Embracing the unknown, and opening yourself to mystery, will fill you with wonder and assure that you are never bored. Every day presents numerous opportunities to embrace mystery, and to step beyond what you know. I challenge you to take at least one of those steps every day.
As Northlanders, we are also fortunate to have a huge and awe-inspiring source of wonder a short fifteen-minute walk from our campus. And that is where I will leave you this afternoon.
I know that some of you have already immersed yourselves in Lake Superior, that some of you do this regularly, but before the weekend is over, I would like all of you, new students and old, faculty and staff, family and friends, to make your way to the shore of Gitchi Gami, and, like Milkman, to wade in.
Once you’re in, wade on out until you have fully immersed yourself. Then, as the cold, clean water of the Lake washes over your skin, and as you remember in awe that the same, cold water courses through your veins, sustaining you, sustaining all of us, I’d like you to commit to a year of total immersion—to a life of being engaged.