[Originally written to read at a Community Arts Night at the beginning of a new academic year at SSU where I work, but it’s also about all of us and why we keep going, keep coming together, keep searching for more… especially in these challenging and uncertain times.]
So here we are, gathered on the front lawn of Park Hall, some of our faces hidden behind masks we were not expecting to have to wear just six short months ago. Just another random assembly of human beings, wondering how we got here, and what we’re here for, and what this year is going to be like, each of us full to the brim with our own separate hopes, dreams and fears – that are even more hidden than our faces but no less real for it, no less powerful.
How did we get here, and what for? When life just keeps on being weird and sometimes hard, and people even weirder, what keeps on drawing us humans together? What makes us push through the weirdness and the hardness again, get out of bed again, and put on a mask to be able to sit next to someone we perhaps don’t even know yet, to listen together to some words, some melodies, some stories?
As we live this beginning together, I’m recalling the beginning of my experience as an undergraduate student.
1992 sounds like a lifetime ago, but I can still distinctly remember the chronic jaw ache I was left with from smiling broadly and constantly for a week or more, desperate to make new friends in this new stage of my life, newly at university and away from home. There were endless queues for everything, it seemed (remember, 1992 was in prehistoric times before the Internet was really a thing!) – queues for a student card, for a library card, for an account with the bursar, for meals, for second-hand text books, to get into the student union nightclub… and often I was in each queue for an hour or more, and next to more new people every time. It was exciting, and exhausting. And a little tedious after a while. As I recall, none of us were very original – always the same three questions: Where do you come from, what are you studying, what residence are you in? Always the painful smiling – a different kind of mask – always the awkwardness and the trying to hide it, always the attempt at witty repartee, the sizing each other up: What are you actually like behind your grin, your mask? Might you be my friend?
Often there were the unavoidable instant judgments: No way – not my kind of person. Too cool to want to be friends with me anyway. Nothing in common. Well, you’re not in my faculty or residence so, among 20,000 students, I’ll likely never see you again anyway.
Occasionally there was the strange pleasure of coming across a semi-familiar face in the crowd after a few days. “Oh… hi! We were together in the queue at the library the other day, I think! Yeah! How’s it going? I know, right?!” Even more occasionally, the inexplicable glimmer of inner recognition: Oh, I actually like you and I think you might like me! Hang on: Am I making a friend right now?! Am I perhaps actually an acceptable, likable human being? Is my new life going to not only NOT be a disaster, but maybe actually be fun?”
Of course, all that effort and strangeness soon became a thing of the past, judgments and insecurities slipped away – mostly! – and there were actual friends. Friends to go to lunch with, or sit in a lecture with, or drive with to a waterfall in the middle of the night, our treacherously dark and slippery path through the woods from the road to the water’s edge lit only by a flickering candle, so that we only ever heard and never saw the roaring, invisible cascade. (Don’t do this at home, kids!) Is this not a miracle in itself? No, not just that nobody died or broke a leg that night! But that strangers DO become friends, whose presence brings comfort and laughter, to whom you dare to tell your secrets, whose weddings you one day attend, whose kids you grow to love, whose divorce hurts you too. Is it not miraculous that we are not destined to be stuck forever in our seeming separateness, but that, over a lifetime, we gather around us a motley crew of other human beings who think we are OK, probably even more-than-OK, and whose company we feel truly privileged to enjoy? That we can discover through the ebb and flow of life and relationship that we do belong after all, and that our connectedness is what is most true about us?
And so, we gather – to ask the big questions:
How did we get here and what are we here for and… is it going to be OK?
We gather to live the questions together, and perhaps some distant day to live into the answers, or into even more beautiful questions. Though the goodness of the world and of life itself can sometimes seem hidden behind a mask of ugliness and suffering, we bear witness together to indisputable glimpses of beauty, justice and compassion, and to our longing for more.
Maybe that longing for more, and the willingness to follow it and not give up, are the greatest miracles of all – as if we are being relentlessly pulled onward by some immense flow that we cannot see.
Though it’s dark and we feel our way forward blindly, the air is undeniably damp and the roar in our ears is growing.
This cascade, this mighty force of kindness is real and it cannot be stopped.
So may we dare to trust the flow that carries us forward, and help each other to trust it too.
We are loved, dear ones, and we are love.
We are wildly beautiful and deeply compassionate.
Let us lend each other the courage to take off our metaphorical masks – even if fabric ones have to stay on a while – and dare to be seen in all our flawed and astonishing beauty, dare to be loved, and to love ourselves, each other, and this wonderful, wounded world.
We are the miracles.