Many will know the poetry of Carolyn Forché, much of it forged in the heat of awfulness witnessed and experienced in El Salvador, Guatemala, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. Here is the commencement speech she gave this past May at the University of Scranton, PA.
The University of Scranton
May 30, 2010
It is a great honor to be here for the Commencement of the Class of 2010 at The University of Scranton. This is a very special place, as all of you know. I have been very moved since my arrival by the spiritual joy so palpable on this campus, I would like to express my gratitude to the President of The University of Scranton, Father Scott Pilarz of the Society of Jesus, and to the members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, members of the faculty, and most especially, the Class of 2010 and their families.
Thank you for inviting me to address you this morning, and to say a few parting words – to put one more little something into the rucksack you have been packing – however wittingly, diligently or even a bit haphazardly – during your years at Scranton. This rucksack now holds the books you have read, underlined and dog-eared, those you fell asleep while reading, whether assigned or unassigned, passages committed to memory, films watched, the languages learned, the discussions held in classrooms or late into the night in the dorms, the art and music you have made, the arguments passionately engaged, the lab experiments and field work, your enchantment, your critical skills, your capacities for intellectual rigor and discernment as you have developed them, your creativity and independence of mind, your habits of thought, all will go with you now, and all will be useful during the whole of your life, in moments of crisis and solitude, in far-flung places and at home, in emergencies, in quiet hours, against failures of the spirit and imagination, and yes, against prejudice and assaults upon the common good. You have everything you need, everything you have given yourselves and all you have been given by your peers and mentors. And, you will use and need it all. I say this from experience, having packed for my own journey 38 years ago.
Some of you know where you are going. You are off to professional schools or graduate schools or if you are exceptionally fortunate and blessed, given these difficult times, you have already been hired for the work you wish to do. Others, and you are no small number, remain uncertain about what lies ahead. I was once one of you. At university I somehow accidentally gave myself what many of you more carefully chose: a liberal education in the arts and sciences. As a college student, I wasn’t at all sure what my future vocation would be, and so I took courses in what interested me: history, literature, languages, philosophy, the arts, and so I reached my senior year having changed my major five times. Somehow I managed to slip through the gates of curricular requirements, and in my senior year I received a letter informing me that I could not graduate because I had yet to complete any major at all. Of course I couldn’t give this news to my dear parents, and so I rushed to the office of one of the few professors I had come to know personally, a refugee from post-war Europe, and when I showed him my letter he exclaimed “but this is a disaster!” I know, I said, but please, can you help me? Still appearing quite exasperated, he said he would study my situation and I should return to his office in a week. I worried my way through that week, but went to his office at the appointed hour, and waited my turn while sitting on the hallway floor, writing poems. “Come in!!” he said, and so I entered the sanctuary of his intellectual life, piled high with books and papers, monographs and articles, class notes from the last century and so on. “Sit down!” he said, and “don’t worry, you have a major!!” While he searched for my folder, I wondered what it was that I knew very much about at all. My dear, he said, you have accidentally majored in International Relations. You have taken all the necessary classes, without meaning to of course, but you have done so. But, I protested, I don’t know anything about International Relations. That’s all right, he replied. Nobody does. So with my degree in International Relations and a self-designed minor in creative writing, I went out into the world to write poetry, and while poetry became my life, my destiny also took me to countries at war – in EI Salvador, Guatemala, and Lebanon, and to Northern Ireland during the troubles and to South Africa in the final days of the Apartheid regime – and in those places, I had need of everything I had ever learned - every word of Spanish and French, and all I had read of history and ethics, of philosophy and literature, so as to ground me in humane understanding, and to enable me to keep faith and courage in difficult times. The story of how all of this began is too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that one day a great humanitarian and visionary whose name was Leonel Gomez Vides appeared at my front door and invited me to spend a year in EI Salvador, learning about the country, which he believed would be at war in three to five years. He wanted a poet to see it from the beginning, to understand the suffering of his people, so that when war came, that poet could return to the United States and help Americans to understand his country. I tried to explain to him how Americans view poets, but he didn’t listen. I didn’t know what to do, or what would happen, but I knew that a door was opening. My decision to accept this invitation did not seem momentous at the time, but it changed my life forever. Remember that most of your important decisions might not at the time seem momentous.
During the years 1978 to 1980, I worked as a human rights activist in EI Salvador, where I sought and received the guidance of Father Ignacio Ellacuria of the Society of Jesus, one of six Jesuit priests murdered along with their two co-workers by the Salvadoran army on Nov. 16, 1989. His door was always open, as it was for all. This was his message: “The struggle against injustice and the pursuit of truth cannot be separated nor can one work for one independent of the other.” He and the other Jesuit fathers gave the people courage and hope; they stood with the poor and accepted their fate. Last November, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of their deaths, as it is commemorated every year in El Salvador, when thousands of people come to the capital to celebrate an open air mass and hold a candle light vigil. This past March, we also commemorated the 30th anniversary of the death of Monsignor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. The week before his death, I met with Monsignor in the kitchen of the convent of the Carmelite Missionary Sisters, where he told me gently that it was time for me to go home, as the situation had become too dangerous, and I was more needed in the United States, in the work of helping Americans to understand the struggle for justice in a country named for the Savior of the world. I pleaded with him to let me stay for a few more weeks, and then begged him to leave as well, as his was the first name to appear on the death squads’ lists, and he was more endangered than anyone else. I remember how calm he seemed that afternoon, tapping his fingers on the Bible he carried with him. And I remember realizing in that moment that I was in the presence of a saint. No, he said, my place is with my people, and now your place is with yours. As a citizen of the United States, I had never thought in these terms: that I had a people. But Monsignor Romero, who was assassinated just one week later, believed that we are all connected, that we are all a people, and today I am beginning to understand what he meant. Today, I recall the words he spoke very early in my time there. In 1978, he said: “The church wants to rouse men and women to the true meaning of being a people. What is a people? A people is a community of persons where all cooperate for the common good.” And he said this: “A society’s … reason for being is not the security of the state but the human person.”… And this: “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.”
Monsignor Oscar Romero and Father Ellacuria taught that each moment of our life shapes the whole of our life, and that we are not always responsible for what befalls us but we are certainly responsible for our response, and in this lies responsibility, our capacity to meet the moment beautifully, and in a manner that honors our deepest aspirations for what it means to be a human being. I am a poet, and you have asked me to address you in your hour of accomplishment and joy. But this is a difficult time, so I asked my friend, Dr. Howard Freed, an emergency room physician, who worked among the poorest of the poor in our nation’s capital for advice about what to say. “Tell them this,” he said, “that acts of kindness to strangers are helpful and important. That you must balance your joy, which is necessary to your spirit, with giving to others, which will allow you to feel better – that finding things you are good at and spending most of your time doing them will give you pleasure, but doing what is right will give you peace.” And to his advice I would add that of the great American poet Walt Whitman: This is what you shall do: “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency.”
You are coming of age in a time of war, and of great environmental and political peril. Do not accept less than exemplary leadership. Remember that you are not consumers. You are citizens of a republic. Remember that we are a people of conscience, infinitely obligated to each other across time and space, and that our cause is not just unless our cause is justice. Remember that our civil liberties and civil rights are your rightful inheritance, and are commended to your guardianship. For centuries into the future, men and women will feel gratitude for your protection of these principles. As I address you today, the greatest man-made environmental disaster in our country’s history is befalling the Gulf Coast and its fragile wetlands, the Gulf of Mexico’s waters and fisheries, the resilient and fragile ocean waters upon which all life depends. We bear witness to this catastrophe in the midst of wars abroad and economic hardship at home. You inherit an enormous task, Class of 2010, and your challenges in the new century are very grave. Your elders place great hope and faith in you, but it is to your God and your descendents that you must answer, and to all who share your moment in human history, for it is a moment upon which the fate of humanity depends. As citizens and as members of the party of humanity, you have the potential to be noble of spirit. You might become the most important generation that has ever lived, given the challenges you have been asked to accept. Live accordingly. Go forth and set the world on fire with courage and confidence, but don’t forget your alma mater, and the teachers who have accompanied you during a brief period of years, and who slipped a few things into that rucksack themselves for you to open in the future when you may need them most. They will miss you, but they are very proud of you today. May your lives and your work be blessed.