Rubenstein Leads Senior Voices Baccalaureate Address

David PesciMay 24, 201115min
Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Mary Jane Rubenstein, assistant professor of religion, assistant professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, presented the “Senior Voices” baccalaureate address:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence
Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides.
I am here
Or there, or elsewhere.
In my beginning.

T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets all cycle around the theme of beginning with a kind of solemnity that’s both attentive and introspective. He looks out as the dawn points—out to the almost-day to feel the wind wrinkle and slide. He looks in and finds himself here, or there, or elsewhere. What is it about beginning that makes us not quite sure of where it is we are, that attunes us so fiercely to the synesthetic world and our placeless place within it? For Eliot, at least, it’s the way beginning collides so inexorably with ending; “here we go ‘round the prickly pear,” looking and listening in all directions until here looks like there, the senses cross, and the past and future all crash into the present, which is who-knows-where.

I think I got my first dose of this sort of attentive introspection right after graduating from middle school. Just a few months lay between a fairly pathetic 13 year-old me and Middletown High School South (not this Middletown; the one in New Jersey, but yes, I only live in Middletowns) and Middletown High School South was terrifying. This was a place where they wore stonewashed jeans that they ripped at the knee and then pegged into mismatching socks. It was a place where the girls teased their bangs and held them stiff with eggwhites and the boys sewed patches on their backpacks ‘til you couldn’t see the backpack part. As you might imagine, my mother wouldn’t let me be cool enough to do any of this, and so high school was just about the last place I wanted to go. I remember yearning for the comfortable insanities of 7th and 8th grade, and wondering what it was all for—these painful adjustments, these awkward periodic transplantations—until the muse of metaphor came upon me and I announced to my 10 year-old brother that I thought I had figured it out. “When you start Kindergarten,” I explained, speaking slowly so he’d understand, it’s like you get planted in this mini flower-pot. Your teachers water you, and you grow, until you get strong enough to move to a bigger flower-pot in first grade. Then you move into bigger and bigger flower-pots, one for middle school, one for high school, a BIG flower-pot for college, and then, when you graduate from college,” I was breathless at the thought, “then you get planted in a garden.” At which point my brother, who’s always been the smart one, shot back, “what if the garden’s just another flower-pot?”

Astronomers tell us that our sun, the source of light and life for everything around us, is just an ordinary star, nowhere in particular, just one out of the billions of stars in the Milky Way. How many billion? Well, they’re not quite sure, but it’s somewhere between a hundred and four hundred. Somewhere between one hundred and four hundred billion stars, which is to say there are three hundred billion stars they can’t quite account for. Three hundred billion blazing balls of gas, charioted across the sky by three hundred billion alien Apollos; worshipped by three hundred billion nations of crypto-Aztecs; installed at the center of the universe by three hundred billion pseudo-Copernicuses (Copernici?). Three hundred billion brilliant gods, greeted each morning by three hundred billion Mary Olivers—“Hello, sun in my face,” she writes,

Hello, you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and the crotchety—
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

300 billion good mornings each morning, or they could be nothing at all. A bit of space-dust. Who knows.

And this is just our galaxy. There are, I’m sure you’ve heard, more—not just a few more, but swarms of more; each galaxy containing anywhere between 10 million and 100 trillion stars. And to make matters more imponderable, it’s looking like there’s no end to the swarm. All signs seem to indicate that the universe is infinite, which is to say the galactic multitude swarms on forever. And just in case we had a shred of grounding left, now the astronomers are telling us that this infinite universe with its scadzillions of galaxies with their trillions of stars isn’t the only universe—that it’s most likely a negligible bubble in an infinite sea of infinite universes they’re now calling the multiverse.

So we live somewhere between the flower-pot and the multiverse. Somewhere between the little constructs that threaten to suffocate us and the infinite expanse that threatens to unravel us. Between the little stuff that can feel so petty and the big stuff that can feel so unbearable. Søren Kierkegaard teaches us that this bizarre double-positioning is what it means to be a self at all. To be a self, he says, means to exist between finitude and infinity, between what we are and what we might yet be. Get stuck at either of these poles and you’re lost—either by closing down into the safe and the comfortable or by floating around in the infinite without landing anywhere. “Personhood,” he writes in a book some of us have read together, “is a synthesis of possibility and necessity. Its…existence is like breathing…an inhaling and an exhaling.”

When I think about what it has meant to me to teach some of you, and to learn from you, I find myself drawn into this funny rhythm of breathing—this constant oscillation between the possible and the necessary. In the years that I’ve come to know you, I’ve marveled at your collective ability to sustain this steady back-and-forth between the infinite and the finite, the intergalactic and the all-too-human, the boundless and the everyday. There are those of you, for example, who’ve worked on anti-racist task forces and interfaith coalitions in the little flower-pot of Wesleyan, and then who’ve headed into the multiversal throng of New York, Jerusalem, or Johannesburg to work toward reconciliation. Some of you have campaigned for a greener campus, rejoiced over one patch of the WestCo courtyard won for wildness—and then trekked down to Washington to lobby for green energy policies. You’ve obsessed over the strange script of medieval manuscripts, the fine lines of Renaissance drawings, the dizzying cycles of Nietzsche’s eternal return, and then you’ve bounded into my office with these immense ideas about Zionism and Post-Zionism, quantum mechanics and biblical studies, Wagnerian opera and Stoic philosophy. You’ve pored over the nearly inscrutable works of Said and Spivak, and then you’ve found yourself having kind of accidentally infiltrated the Moroccan government. You’ve set old poems and prayers to new music, written water-tight ethnographies through high-flying theory, wrestled with Kant so you could dream up your own ethical philosophy, and sung early modern arias one day only to make up brand new musical genres the next: “it’s kind of a post-punk anti-folk acid lullaby fusion,” you’ll explain as you’re rushing from class to rehearsal. “But we don’t like labels. We’re open to whatever happens when we play. There’s a bass guitar, a mix-deck, two flutes and a deep-fat fryer.” Constantly, tirelessly, out to the infinite expanse of the possible and then back to the microscopic necessities of the everyday.

But what I’ve found most humbling has been the way you’ve used this dance to build relationships and communities of care. You are as open to one another as you are to bizarre new ideas, and it means you end up both sharing and shouldering a lot. You’ve seen one another through existential crises, religious overhauls, family emergencies, personal trauma, collective tragedy, the agony of writing a thesis, the terror of looking for jobs, and the perpetual problem of having way too much to do in far too little time. Any one of these infinities could have swallowed you and your friends whole, if you’d let yourselves get stuck out there. But you’ve navigated these crises by pulling yourselves and your people back to the everyday. By resolving to make three new kinds of bread together, or by bursting into a friend’s room with cookies. By instituting weekly dinners in your woodframe houses, staying up all night with the roommate who can’t sleep, and writing goofy plays together about delinquent apocalyptic horsemen (speaking of which, it’s 6:40 and we all seem still to be here). In countless small ways, you’ve pulled one another from the brink of some abyss back down to the ground, even if just by reminding each other from time to time to breathe.

Mary Oliver again:

How can I hope to be friends
with the hard white stars
whose flaring and hissing are not speech
but pure radiance?
How can I hope to be friends
with the yawning spaces between them
where nothing, ever is spoken?
Tonight, at the edge of the field,
I stood very still, and looked up,
and tried to be empty of words.
What joy was it, that almost found me?
What amiable peace?…
Once, deep in the woods,
I found the white skull of a bear
and it was utterly silent—
and once a river otter in a steel trap
and it was utterly silent. But
what can we do
but keep on breathing in and out,
modest and willing, and in our places?”

This evening we take a moment to look inward, to hold you in this space before releasing you into the infinite. What’s so daunting about this transition, as some of you have said to me in very different ways, is that for most of you, this is the first time you haven’t got a specific Thing You’re Supposed To Do Next, and so the expanse of the possible is overrunning all your bounds of necessity. For all the strange things you’ve done here, you could be an ambassador, a goat farmer, or a reiki master—“here, or there, or elsewhere.” “How can I hope to be friends with these yawning spaces”? The work, you’ll find, is to live between the river otter and the hot white stars, but what I’d like to suggest is that although this may feel new, it’s what you’ve been doing for years. Navigating the expanse between the dreams to be dreamt and the bread to be made, the person you’ll be and the one you so marvelously are. Inhaling out to new possibilities, and then exhaling back to a provisional necessity—one that keeps you grounded but open. And that’s about it, I think: in and out. Out and back. Breathe.