Reunion Service of Gratitude and Remembrance
June 14, 2015
Williams Is Awesome
Meg Bossong ’05
I want to preface this with my religious background. I was baptized Catholic, and one of my favorite early phrases, which I shouted from my stroller was “Jesus Christ!”, to the delight of my deeply faithful Catholic grandparents and the horror of my parents who were the ones most often pushing the stroller when I proclaimed the Holy Spirit.
In childhood, I attended and was confirmed in the Methodist church, for the compelling theological reason that it was walking distance from our house. And finally, in high school, I came to rest in the Unitarian Universalist community. It’s often said that the best UU sermon is virtually indistinguishable from a good liberal arts lecture, and the most sacred object in a UU church is the coffee pot, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that Williams was a good fit.
When you say “bell” and “Lord”, I think not of carillons and saviors, but hooks and Audre. My Catholic grandfather asked me once while I was in college how often I went to church. I tried to joke with him and say that the UU’s were some of the earliest adopters of distance learning. He told me that he worried that, without the scaffolding of text and catechism that I might lose my way in the world. I didn’t quite have the language at the time to tell him what I wanted to say, but I have it now, for us, in this time of gathering and remembrance.
There are moments, over my time as a student and now, as an adult in a community when I am filled up with wonder. Where I stand in place for a moment and whisper quietly to myself, “Williams is awesome.”
I don’t mean this in quite the way that would give Admissions, Alumni Relations, and Development frissons of joy, but rather that it is a moment of awe and wonder that begs for pause, to stop for a moment and sit in silence. In that way, mandatory chapel at Williams has never really ended, it has become more spontaneous.
We enter this community, this body as anyone enters a faith community. We are new, we are uncertain, there are reams of text and further reams of interpretation from those more learned and more experienced, and yet our hunger is not just for the texts but to find for ourselves a place in a community even as we are trying to understand ourselves as individuals.
In November, 2001, my freshman year, there was a glorious Leonid meteor shower, one of the most spectacular in recent memory, peaking just before dawn on a Sunday morning. I trooped down to Cole Field with entrymates, and others–not quite friends but fully Ephs–sitting shivering in the darkness and damp grass, with the sky spread out before us.
Every discipline at Williams could tell you something about that moment. Astronomy and astrophysics. Geosciences. History. English. Literature. Philosophy. Art. Yet let us simply be, in that moment, together, and silent, and small in the universe.
These moments of awe reveal themselves to us throughout our time here. Spread out your beautiful reunion map and run your fingers over its creases. Our maps are deeply communal. We’ve thrilled in the voices of our friends, lifted in song. We’ve labored over papers and chalkboards, propping open drowsy eyes. We’ve stood in the same spots, screaming ourselves hoarse to encourage Williams to victory.
And our maps are tenderly, exquisitely personal. A secret study nook or favorite spot to escape away, in solitude or with friends. Where did you go to seek silence and stillness? Where did you taste joy and failure?
Because as we know, moments of awe are not only exultant in their power, but sometimes terrible as well. Gathered here in the mystery of this hour, we are a smaller group than when we left this valley together 5, 10, 20, 50 years ago. We have lost classmates and friends, lovers and loved ones.
In those moments, we turn to the well worn leaves of our books, passing hands over text both sacred and secular, to plumb the depths of our grief and seek a way back to wholeness.
I will quote now from a friend of mine from my time at Williams. Chaedria LaBouvier is Williams Class of 2007. With her mother, Colette Flanagan, they were the Keynote speakers at this year’s Claiming Williams event. Chaedria’s brother Clinton Allen was murdered on March 10th, 2013 by a Dallas-Ft. Worth police officer. In that speech, Chaedria says,
“The grief that I felt after I lost my brother completely devastated me. It was beyond anything that my 27 years had ever prepared me for. I felt isolated and alone. It was difficult for people to know what to say to me, in a political and personal way. So I sat. And before I pulled out my pen, I pulled out my books and my work from Williams. I found meaning in Aeschylus who warns me that grief would fall drop by drop upon my heart, and solace in Seneca’s consolation to Helvia. In the depths of my despair and isolation, I found my tribe with Henry’s men in the St. Crispin’s Day speech: we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. When I felt overwhelmed by the love and grief that I have for Clinton, I found in Shakespeare a compass. When he shall die, take him and cut him out into little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
When we graduated from Williams, each one of our names was spoken into the vastness of this valley, into what was both the beginning and the center of our lives. We speak the names of those who have gone from us, both those who’ve lived the fullness of their time on this earth and those who’ve left us much too soon. We’ve called out their names across quads, and whispered them in libraries. Their names, their lives, are sacred, and each of them, and each of us, leaves a part of ourselves in this place.
We began this meditation with the stars. Let us end it with that most Williams of features, the purple mountains. I will quote now from my classmate, Ben Cronin, and his commencement speech to us 10 years ago.
“[The mountains] have stood in mute witness to ten thousand years of human history in this valley, and they have watched over us as well — in the throes of first adversity, in the ecstasy of final triumph, watched us glow and sorrow […] they have accompanied us, unmoving, through every season under the sun. In the fall they explode into a vibrancy made poignant by its ephemerality; in the winter, sere and white, they are Ethan Frome’s country. In April and May a slow vernal tide works its way up their living sides, while in the summer, they simply exult. And now, they will see us off, [back] out into the world.
William Cullen Bryant, the 19th Century poet who, like us, graduated from Williams, wrote about New England’s natural beauty and its spiritual reverberations in the human heart. In “June” — a poem, appropriately enough, on dying in June — he wrote “of the gladness of the scene” … beneath “the circuit of the summer hills.” Remember this gladness. Remember the smell of the ferns and the flowers, the rocks and the streams, remember that primal spark of intellectual excitement, your professors’ knowing funny eyes; remember your heart and your hopes, dreams and fears, all the years of our burning youth spent throbbing beneath the circuit of these summer hills. And when all in life is gray and wintry, return in your mind’s eye to the mountains of flowery June, the years when together we were young and blossomed in their shadow. Go now, Ephs, always remembering, out and over and beyond the hills” back into your lives, knowing that as long as, and whenever, you wish to return, that these hills and this community will be here for you.
Let us go out into the world, to do the hard and necessary work of building the communities we need. Communities of justice, communities of compassion. And let us return.