Beginning today and ending Thursday, The Home Forum offers excerpts from four recent and outstanding commencement addresses. The topics are universal, candid, and worthy of extra consideration. Addressing the graduates of Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., this May, Anne Hawley, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, focused on the challenge of keeping one's imagination alive. In this excerpt, she shares a poignant story from Willa Cather.
A LOT of what I want to say is embodied in the Willa Cather story ``A Wagner Matinee.'' The young man in this story receives a letter from his aunt who lives in Nebraska telling him she was returning to Boston after 30 years to settle some legal issues.
She had lived in Boston as a student and then studied and eventually taught music at the Conservatory of Music.
While she was a teacher in Boston, she met a young man from Vermont - a farmer, but an idle and shiftless boy. He wooed her and the result of their infatu ation was that she eloped with him, escaping criticism of friends and family on the Nebraska frontier. They lived in a sod hut dug into the red hillside, drinking from the lagoon where the buffalo drank, their meager provisions at the mercy of roving bands of Indians. For 30 years his aunt had been no farther than 50 miles from their homestead.
She had taken with her an inner life that was replete with the richest culture that America then had to offer: music of the Boston Symphony, literature, classical learning.
When she arrived in Boston, she looked a battered and hardened figure. The nephew planned a visit to a Boston Symphony concert. He watched carefully when they stepped into Symphony Hall - the world to which she had been dead for a quarter of a century. His ragged aunt in her queer country clothes was out of place in the hall full of other women in shimmering fabrics of soft and silky colors. But when the orchestra came onto the stage, she stirred in anticipation. Then he observed her: ``When the horns drew out the first strain of the `Tannh"auser Overture,''' he said, ``Aunt Georgiana clutched my coat sleeve. Then it was I first realized that for her this broke a silence of 30 years.... I saw again the tall, naked house on the prairie, black, and grim as a wooden fortress; the black pond where I had learned to swim, its margin pitted with sun-dried cattle tracks; the rain-gullied clay banks about the naked house.
``Soon after the tenor began singing, I heard a quick-drawn breath and turned to my aunt. Her eyes were closed, but the tears were glistening on her cheeks. Throughout the rest of the concert, my aunt wept quietly but continuously.
``Then the concert was over; the people filed out of the hall chattering and laughing, glad to relax and find the living level again, but my aunt made no effort to rise. The harpist slipped the green felt cover over his instrument; the flute players shook the water from the mouthpieces; the orchestra went out one by one, leaving the stage to the chairs and music stands, empty as a winter cornfield.
``I spoke to my aunt. She burst into tears and sobbed pleadingly: `I don't want to go, I don't want to go.'
``I understood. For her, just outside the concert hall lay the black pond with the cattle-tracked bluffs; the tall unpainted house with weather curled boards, naked as a tower; the crook-backed ash seedlings where the dishcloths hung to dry; the gaunt, moulting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door.''
How much we take for granted! None of us is sentenced to anything like the life on the 19th-century Nebraska plains. Ours are potentially lives of overflowing riches compared to hers.
On your day of Commencement I think of you all poised on the way into the symphony. To the riches of life, to the challenges of the richly imaginative life.
But the Willa Cather story also reminds us, in a different way, of how much the wraparound sound and stimulation of our environment divert us. How many of us, surrounded by abundance of opportunity, unthinkingly sentence ourselves to lives empty of the challenge of imagination and creativity. The aunt in Willa Cather's story had a voracious need that survived even 30 years in an empty land. It was her lifeline to a world beyond herself.
I challenge you to seek the meaning in your life through your love and work. To fuel your imaginative life through engaging with the arts or whatever else will help kindle the fires of your imagination. I see you poised on the way into the symphony of a richly imaginative and meaningful life.
Tomorrow: William Broyles, former Newsweek editor, on the benefits of climbing a mountain.