Commencement address for Claremont McKenna College
[Yesterday, May 15, I delivered the Commencement address for the 2021 class of graduates at Claremont McKenna College. Interspersed with my remarks were violin performances, in a kind of musical kintsugi.]
It is indeed amazing grace to be with you all today.
In the 15th century, a shogun — a lord of the samurai — broke his favorite porcelain tea bowl.
He sent it back to China to be repaired — but as was the custom at the time, it was returned to him remade with metal staples. Perfectly usable, but ugly.
The shogun was unsatisfied, so he turned his cup over to his own artisans, who were masters in urushi, the Japanese lacquer art.
The artists took the fragments of their lord’s teacup and — instead of hiding the fractures — illuminated them with golden glue. From the fragments, they made something new. Out of the memory of a cup, they made a new container.
This art is called kintsugi, literally — golden joinery. It is a metaphor for healing. We know that our scars tell the story. We know that bones are strongest at the point of fracture.
Kintsugi is also a call to evolution. The poet-saint Leonard Cohen reminded us, as he sat on that mountain right there, that there’s a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in.
As our lives are lit up by grief, we are called to re-member, to literally re-make, our world. There is no convenient ‘new normal’, because there are too many pieces missing. There are too many people missing. A life which has been shattered cannot be casually stapled back together.
Our society itself has been broken open by reckoning, illuminating the bedrock fractures of inequality inherent in the core of our institutions. Some of these pieces and structures threaten to come back with more force than ever before. We must continue to remember what never actually served us — or only served some of us.
But we must also remember the effort it took to make those containers, however imperfect they were. Our pain, our past — is also not trash. There is no person or experience which can be discarded. Our histories are not biodegradable.
The great lawyer Bryan Stevenson one “can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it”. And yet, in choosing to embrace what makes us most human — in actually choosing brokenness — we connect to the source of real comfort, belonging, and healing.
Healing is painful work. Healing requires one to sit, as Leonard Cohen sat on Mount Baldy, and sing over the fractures of our life. Healing requires us to lean in and truly feel the brokenness.
I make music in Skid Row.
Skid Row is a place of brokenness — the largest community of people experiencing homelessness in America today. It is a place of horror and neglect. When I started making music in Skid Row ten years ago, a social worker very frankly told me that Skid Row is a place where people go to die.
Skid Row is a real place — a geographical location, but it is also a metaphor for our own internal wastelands. Skid Row is the manifestation of the cost of neglecting our pain.
We ostracize and criminalize the most fragile and vulnerable among us, because we have shunned the most fragile and vulnerable — and human parts of ourselves.
Making music in Skid Row isn’t an effort to solve homelessness or incarceration. It is an act of leaning in. It is an act of illuminating the fractures — the ones which exist in our audiences of people in shelters and clinics and county jails and prisons — while holding a mirror up to our own brokenness.
In Skid Row, the golden glue — the currency of trust — is relationship. The relationships we build with our audiences of people in reentry and recovery centers, the relationships we build with social workers and clinicians, the relationships we build with security guards and custodians, with artists in the community — with the people we see every day. Our work is not to solve or fix anyone in an act of drive-by charity. It is to continue to show up, and to make a new story together, in relation to one another.
In her 1993 Nobel Prize lecture, the great Toni Morrison said, “make up a story. Narrative is radical, because it creates us as we create it.”
Many of my closest mentors in Skid Row are people in reentry from life sentences in prison. They have taught me that forgiveness is a radically creative act. Forgiveness is the brave choice to write a new story.
Forgiveness is a choice to take our identity from more than the worst thing that ever happened to us.
Forgiveness is a choice to take our identity from more than the worst thing we ever did to someone else.
Skid Row is a place of death, and that means it is also a place of new beginnings.
In the face of incalculable pain, my mentors in Skid Row have taught me that relationships allow us to remake the world in the image of one another. We are nourished by each other. A phoenix rises from the ashes.
***(Bach, Sarabande from the Partita in d minor)***
In his book Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kanatzakis recalls walking through a pine forest as a child, and seeing a butterfly slowly emerging from its cocoon. Astonished and impatient to see this miracle of life, he started to warm the butterfly with his breath, and the metamorphosis unfolded rapidly. Too rapidly.
When the butterfly emerged, its translucent wings were unformed. They needed time to bake in the sun. The butterfly died in his hands. He felt the immense weight of that tiny corpse for the rest of his life. He felt the cost of rushing God’s rhythm.
The Victorian novelist Amelia Barr said “Everything good needs time. Don’t do work in a hurry… For genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly.”
The work before us now is to use our genius to make a daily practice of change. The work before us now, as we stand before the immensity of memory and remembrance, is to embrace the small. I wonder if this is the meaning of humility: to know that you, your fragile, fractured humanity, might be nothing more than the beating of a butterfly’s wings upon the face of the world.
Mathematicians call this the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. But we could call it the butterfly effect [the tiniest, smallest actions which can accumulate to a force which can move mountains].
We are all in reentry. We are all remaking ourselves. And as we re-member the shards of our lives and make a new vessel in relationship to one another, may we also remember that the parts of us which will give us real flight, real imagination, real connection, real change — need time.
It took Leonard Cohen 5 years to write Hallelujah. He filled notebooks with verses, references to the Old Testament, meditations upon a life of rock and art and sex and disappointment, and the daring choice to utter that word of praise — Hallelujah — in the face of all that was shattered, broken and lost.
I invite you to say your Hallelujahs with me.