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The Voyage Home

The only high-school grad-uation I have ever attended was my own and it was hardly business-as-usual.

I had left school after my junior year; I had no interest in having a senior year. I didnít want to go to football games or goof off or drive around or get a fake ID for drinking.

I was an artsy-fartsy type at a high school that didnít exactly embrace the arts; I was a lonely kid from a reasonably screwed-up household in a care-worn railroad town. Sounds dramatic. I guess it was. But it was boring drama. It seemed Paul Simonís song was written just for me:

ďSaving my money, dreaming of glory/twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun/leaving nothing but the dead and the dying/back in my little town.Ē

Leaving was what it was all about for me. I figured it was the only way I could learn to breathe. I still think it was.

But when I came back from my freshman year in college, my graduation day terrified me. I had been awkward and shy in high school, so out of the loop that when I wrote the school newspaper gossip column (pen name: Bizzy-Buzzy) I needed well-placed informants to dig the dirt. I was certain graduation day would turn out to be the bust that it was.

I consoled myself: Our alma mater was sung to the tune of an Elvis Presley song. Really. Why should I care if I felt like a Misfit Toy?

I did, of course. But I also got through it, probably because the ceremony reminded me that I had long since left town.

My daughter Madeleine graduates this Thursday and she, thankfully, doesnít see it with the same self-protecting cynicís eyes as I saw mine.

For her, graduation is all that it is supposed to be: a rite of passage, joyful and momentousóbut also one that leads directly into a summer of strange and unprecedented transition.

She has talked to me a lot about what all this means to her and I have no right to share her feelings here. Besides, itís enough to say that, maybe for the first time in the 18 years of her life, she is experiencing something for which I have had no real parallel experience.

When I was her age I had already left home. For Madeleine, as with so many of her graduating friends, leave-taking will require a summerís worth of preparation, anticipation and bittersweetness.

Furthermore, when I was her age I didnít wonder about how my mother would handle my absence. Maybe I figured she was sick of me and was secretly glad to see me go, her protests to the contrary. Maybe I just didnít think about it at all.

But Madeleine teases me all the time. ďWhat will you do when Iím in Boston? How will you get through a day? Who will get things down from the high shelves?Ē (She is forgetting, apparently, that her younger sister is taller than both of us.)

Behind all the teasing, though, is a kind of worry: How will each of us do?

On one level we will do just fine. We are resourceful people. And there is e-mail. Not only that, I keep threatening to find a teaching job in Boston just so I can keep on eye on her. (Thanks to the expensive rental market, she knows this is an idle threat.)

Nevertheless, we share a great closeness, a joy in each othersí presence that absence will turn to longing. My own mother and I desired such closeness, but could never achieve it. Our good-byes were always mixed with a bit of relief, our visits charged with friction.

So perhaps that set a kind of template for me: that leave-taking might be painful, but it was inevitable, maybe even necessary. My fatherís death, my adolescent need for differentiation, my own experience with divorce perhaps in some ways hardened me. Or as Yeats puts it:

Men come, men go

All things remain in God.

Parenting Madeleine has taught me something entirely different. I have learned that genuine love and reliable goodwill are also sustainable over the years. And this has given me hope; it has revived my faith in all human relationships, whether between parent and child, between friends, between spouses or partners.

And it has also made me aware that there is so much more to life than leave-taking. There is the flow outward and there is also the richness of the welcomed return.

I imagine I will cry like a bloody fool at her graduation. Iím sure I wonít be alone in my tears. And Iím sure that both Madeleine and I, in our individual ways, will feel moments of fear, or sheer separation anxiety as the summer rolls on.

But trumping the fear, quelling the anxiety is the knowledge that leaving really is not what life is all about. Rather, Iíve come to see Madeleineís graduation as a rite that signals the truer movement of human lifeóa tidal pattern, a rhythmic shifting between setting forth and returning home, over and over, like the inward and outward breath we need to live.

If I could, I would paint these words where Madeleine could see them everyday. Maybe they are words all of us need to see everyday: an invitation to fearless living and solid promise of an always welcome return:

Please bring strange things.

Please come bringing new things.

Let very old things come into your hands.

Let what you do not know come into your mmeyes.

Let desert sand harden your feet.

Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.

Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps

and the ways you go be the lines on your mmpalms.

Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing

and your outbreath be the shining of ice.

May your mouth contain the shapes of mmstrange words.

May you smell food cooking you have not mmeaten.

May the spring of a foreign river be your mmnavel.

May your soul be at home where there are mmno houses.

Walk carefully, well loved one,

walk mindfully, well loved one,

walk fearlessly, well loved one.

Return with us, return to us,

be always coming home.

óUrsula K. LeGuin

óJo Page


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