COA professor of literature and theory Karen Waldron speaking at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.COA professor of literature and theory Karen Waldron speaking at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.

Welcome, greetings, and celebrations! As you can see, I’m one of many faculty — so some of the students in this room know me well, some only know me by reputation (I fear to think), and most of you wonderful supporters of these amazing students don’t really know me at all. But … in this room full of love and pride, I want to say a few things about knowing that might actually be relevant to most everyone.

Four years ago, more or less, many of you who are seniors had several faculty “talking heads” during your orientation, as you were just beginning your COA journey. Dave Feldman and I kicked off the academics by talking about love, taking risks, and coming to know through experience. Dave told you that human ecology is a gerund. This year someone thought it would be good to reprise that spirit of beginnings, of beginnings simultaneous with ends. Think of the gerunds! The beginning of college — the ending of childhood? The ending of college — the beginning of the rest of your life? Thinking, I wonder what I can say that will adequately respond to the brilliance of the revelations, scientific rigor, artistic passion, social analysis, and creative outpourings of your amazing senior projects? Of what you each, individually and together, have discovered on this journey? How can I do justice to the fact that you have come to know through experience, through taking risks, through courage and determination and effort? What thoughts and words might bring matters full circle?

“What Bishop reminds us is that what makes you yourself also connects you to everyone else, and that makes knowing and growing possible and necessary” COA professor Karen Waldron.“What Bishop reminds us is that what makes you yourself also connects you to everyone else, and that makes knowing and growing possible and necessary” COA professor Karen Waldron.

On the one hand, I am confident that you don’t need my words — you have arrived. And yet, as you complete you also begin. But … There is no full circle, at least not a static one. Instead there are gerunds. While it is commonplace to call graduations commencements, the thought is often a linear one, about the next phase of life, like the next birthday. I want to talk differently about knowing and time —about spirals, or cycles in time. About movement and consciousness. About realizations that recur. Ultimately, I want to talk about what it means to have a mind, to have worked with your mind, and to have struggled with everything that has confronted you over the past years and gotten to this glorious, exhausting, exhilarating, and perhaps anticlimactic point. I want to talk about knowing and time.

You may remember that not only did I speak about love and trust and risks and failure and courage and creative floundering at your orientation. I read you poetry, lines from Elizabeth Bishop and T.S. Eliot. I’m going to remind you of why, besides the obvious fact that I teach literature, I turned to those poets and poems. Of course, in a talk about time and knowing, I can’t possibly explain in any depth. So instead I am going to focus on two brief segments in the works I quoted then and share the way that for me they comment on your journeys, your spiralings through knowing and time.

“Strange and beautiful, like your name, your questions, projects, and passions anchor you to something more mysterious than even identity, a force that in time, somehow, as Bishop says in the poem, ‘stops the sensation of falling off the round, turning world into cold, blue-black space.’”

If you recall, Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” describes a child’s realization that she, too, is a person. The realization horrifies yet empowers her; she has not only a name and identity, but also an awareness that marks her as “one of them.” But … What does it mean? Those of you who have been in class with me know that the answer to that question is never simple, never fixed, never sure. And yet, in our journeys through COA time, in our experience of this community and of human ecology, in your focus on what you have studied, there is much meaning, much purpose, much learning, and a great deal of knowing.

What you know is that each one of us is “one of them”: each one of us is one of those flawed humans that live on this beleaguered planet, knowing ourselves — if we are lucky — as both different and the same as the next bozo on the bus: each special, yet not special. I suspect that you have realized, over and over again during this educational process that asks you to think for yourself and to come up with your own projects, that your interests and questions and passions do mark you as both singular and one of them, at least as one of the COA them, which has perhaps been an ambivalent experience — like being part of a family. Your questions and perceptions make you you, but also help you to know yourself as the same yet different, because in having passions and curiosities you come to understand and respect the passions and curiosities of others, as you have these last weeks attending to each other’s senior projects. Strange and beautiful, like your name, your questions, projects, and passions anchor you to something more mysterious than even identity, a force that in time, somehow, as Bishop says in the poem, “stops the sensation of falling off the round, turning world into cold, blue-black space.”


“Ultimately, I want to talk about what it means to have a mind, to have worked with your mind, and to have struggled with everything that has confronted you over the past years and gotten to this glorious, exhausting, exhilarating, and perhaps anticlimactic point” literature and theory professor Karen Waldron.“Ultimately, I want to talk about what it means to have a mind, to have worked with your mind, and to have struggled with everything that has confronted you over the past years and gotten to this glorious, exhausting, exhilarating, and perhaps anticlimactic point” literature and theory professor Karen Waldron.Now that you know that force, having confronted self and other in the cycles of time, I hope you remember to hold on to your questions and passions, to what keeps you from falling off the round, turning world — because what Bishop reminds us is that what makes you yourself also connects you to everyone else, and that makes knowing and growing possible and necessary. Time will keep flowing, the world will keep turning, and as each insight leads to another it is your consciousness, your creativity, that will mark you and help you know yourself as part of the whole. At your orientation I wanted you to believe that we, your teachers, trusted you, knowing that the process is terrifying but also worth it, because what you get out of your education is yourself. Spiraling through time, here you are. You know.

And as for T.S. Eliot, what I quoted you back at your orientation was just a tiny tidbit from the immensity of Little Gidding, a long poem that burns and rests, that confronts and captures the paradoxes of human consciousness in and of time. Among other profundities. Poems are like that. Within those stanzas there are phrases, like Bishop’s, that contain the whole world. What I read to you at orientation was:

     We shall not cease from exploration


     And the end of all our exploring 


     Will be to arrive where we started 


     And know the place for the first time.

Earlier in the stanza, Little Gidding invokes the idea of “commencement”:

“What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

… and later

What does it mean?

For me, one of the many elements of what T.S. Eliot’s words capture, is — like with Bishop’s comments about being aware of the round, turning world — what it is like to live in time, fallible but growing, mortal but finite, living beings, conscious of our living, of our failures and achievements, conscious of our growth — sometimes. Until we aren’t, and then we are again.

And in that process, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”

COA professor of literature and theory Karen Waldron shares her remarks at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.COA professor of literature and theory Karen Waldron shares her remarks at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.

The knowing that you have now is something you had then, or whenever you joined the COA community, but it is also manifestly different. It has moved through time, as have you. It has been tested by creative floundering, as have you. You have had to claim yourself over and over again, against doubts and fears and the question of what anyone but especially your own inner self means by Human Ecology. You have made it. Congratulations. You know.

To spiral back, though, to creative floundering, to the process — we only know through time. Dave Feldman quoted Antonio Machado, who said: “we make the path by walking.”

When we walk into the unknown, the process of walking makes the unknown known, but also where we came from known. Because while we move through time we come to know or understand past and present, even the future, differently.

At graduation everyone, including me, is going to ask you — what next?  It’s the easy and probably unfair question.  But the more important one might be:  what do you know?  Of yourself, of others, of the world, of how you — with all your memories — are inhabiting this moment, this knowing?

Eliot talks of knowing the place for the first time. That’s the spiral.

Knowing is not static; it refreshes and renews itself. In the poem the place that Eliot speaks of could be your place, your being, becoming ever richer with each realization that you have been here before, that you’ve always been here, but that now you know differently, newly.

When you first came to COA you didn’t know what you wanted to study. Or you did.  But either way, you discovered worlds. Either way, you found something vital, something your own, something that is true. I can see it in your senior projects. And they reflect what you’ve always known yet could not know until now in this way.

Isn’t that an epiphany?

That’s why I quoted T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop. That’s the gift of exploring and knowing for the first time. That’s the burden and gift of conscious being. That’s your education, your Bachelor of Arts or Masters of Philosophy in human ecology. Well done.