Sunday, May 14, 2006


Ten years ago this UNC Commencement Day, Seamus Heaney received an honorary doctorate and spoke to the graduating class (which included me in the Ph.D. march). What a coup! In the summer of 1995 he accepted the request from English professors Weldon Thornton and George Lensing; by the time the date arrived, he had won the Nobel Prize.

His speech was brief, wise and unsentimental. According to Thornton and Lensing's preface to the monograph of the speech (which I treasure), it was only the second commencement address he'd ever made. Drawing on old connections between Ireland and North Carolina, he established common bonds between these two storytelling cultures and proceeded to tell a story. It was about his childhood. Asked to write a report on his "Day at the Seaside," he improvised. He had been to the seaside, as it happened, but it wasn't a particularly luxurious experience. So he made something up, with the "chief lyrical effort . . . reserved for the description of the bucket and spade I'd used at the beach, the sky-blue enamelled inside of the bucket and its technicolour outside, its canary yellows and cardinal scarlets and greenfinch greens, a spectrum of dazzle and desire that gladdened the heart; and then the little spade, so trimly shafted and youngster-friendly, all fitted and edged and scaled down to perfection."

Fine phrases, but the reality was that the beach tools his mother had bought for her children were an ordinary tin milk can and wooden spoons--practical, "durable" items that would repay their investment not only at the beach but also back home. The moral?

I want to avoid preaching at you but I do want to convince you that the true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your own lives. True to your own solitude, your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally to reality and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive at times but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom, and you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier psychic keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle. Doing so may entail self-doubt, some divergence from the accepted wisdom, yet whenever the unconventional decision or the unusual move issues from a freedom that has been earned rather than a desire for notice, it has the force of revelation.

As he spoke these words on that beautiful Sunday morning in Kenan Stadium, few if any of us understood the scale of the tragedy that had unfolded the night before in a fraternity house on Cameron Avenue. Ten years later, officials suggest it could happen again. "It requires constant vigilance on our part, because if we let up it would slip back immediately," [fire chief Dan] Jones said. "Eighteen to 22-year-olds believe they're bullet proof."

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