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Notes from My Office Door

Convocation Address
by Nancy Simon, '63
Professor of Theatre

I came to Whitman College a long time ago — so long that my freshman convocation was held in a place called the Chapel — so long that when I came, Whitman had a football team — so long that this building [Cordiner Hall] and half the people in it hadn't yet been created.

One would think I might have acquired some wisdom in these many decades, but I'm a slow learner. About all I can tell you with some certainty is that you may grow old but you will not grow up, that your ears, nose, and feet will continue to grow, that although you may find it pleasant to believe that a cure for mortality will be found in your lifetime, it's not bloody likely, and that four years and a hundred thousand dollars from now, you will look just as silly in this outfit as I do.

I thought, therefore, that today I might share with you the thoughts of some of the many people wiser than I. Since I acquired my present office a decade or so ago, I have pasted on the door intriguing or consoling thoughts from a variety of sources, and though most have remained there for quite a long time, they continue to intrigue and console me as I hope they might you.

One of the first things I pasted on the door was this weighty thought from that weighty lady, Gertrude Stein: "There ain't any answer. There ain't going to be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer."

We come to Whitman College seeking answers, answers which when we repeat them in class will secure us shining grades and the admiration of our peers, which when we recite them at parties will give us a certain authoritative cachet, which in the insecure hours before dawn will give us some sense that we have some mastery over the world. Our parents hope that we will find answers, answers which will far exceed in value the vast sum of our tuition, answers that will guarantee us a high-paid position in the marketplace so that, A, we will never have to live at home again and, B, we can support them in the style to which they would like to become accustomed. The College hopes we will find answers that bring us wealth and fame so that Whitman may bask in our reflected success and the endowment may bask in our reflected tax incentives.

Well, trust Gertrude. There ain't any answers. Only an ever-widening ripple and an ever-deepening plummet of questions. Our search here should be, not for certainty, but possibility. When I was studying lighting design, one of our projects was Sartre's No Exit in which three people closeted miserably together in a Second Empire room refuse to leave because they're afraid of what might be outside the door. Our wonderful teacher, the late Arden Fingerhut, asked, "What's outside? Heaven in a boat?" An answer too much cherished is a closed door forbidding ongoing encounter. What's on the other side? Perhaps the flames of hell. Perhaps heaven in a boat. But an infinity of perhapses far more vital and exciting than the stuffy closet of an answer. When we lock ourselves into answers, into what we think we know, we become words which in our wonderful English language, glorious in its imperfection and mutability, sound as ugly as their meaning: dogmatic, rigid, self-righteous, complacent, ignorant. We ignore without exploring because we think we have the answer.

If indeed we can learn from history, surely one of its great lessons is that the worst excesses of human behavior are often committed when we think we have the answers — when we know we are right. At the moment when we think we have the answer, we need to give ourselves a good swift kick up the backside. We need to say to ourselves, as the wonderful Walter Johnson with whom I studied Scandinavian drama used to say to me when I got entirely too smart-assed: "You don't really think that, do you, Miss Simon?" We must seek and doubt and seek again. There ain't any answer. That's the answer.

Below Gertrude Stein on my office door is a copy of a letter from Mij Convery to the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Ms. Convery is a stranger to me, though I'd very much like to be her friend. I know only that she was a season ticket holder at the Rep in the 1980s and that I will always love her for writing this letter, which speaks also to the subject of closed doors.

In the mid-'80s, the Seattle Rep season included what critic Roger Downey only recently recalled as "Martha Clarke's notorious subscriber enrager The Garden of Earthly Delights." Martha Clarke is a dancer-choreographer-director-performance artist who produces work of great visual beauty and startling originality — "like nothing you have ever seen, nothing you have ever seen before." The Garden of Earthly Delights was her response to the wonderful work of that title by the medieval Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch, a triptych whose outer panels fold open to reveal what arts journalist Louisa Buck has called "extravagant scenes of exotic beasts, fantastic couplings, and hellish damnation — like nothing you have ever seen, nothing you have ever seen before." In Ms. Clarke's version, performers floated enchantingly through the air and sometimes engaged in actions of the sort which ought not to be done in the street lest they frighten the horses. The piece certainly frightened many Seattle viewers, who had perhaps expected something more conven-tionally uplifting. They bombarded the Rep with letters dipped in outrage and dripping vitriolic oil.

Which brings me back to Ms. Convery, who, confessing to having "avoided live theatre for 20 years," writes to the Rep in the midst of this onslaught to describe what becoming a subscriber has meant to her. She speaks of "the challenging opportunity to confront the discrepancies between my own way of viewing the world and the interpretation of the same world by others," and observes that to do so, "I must divorce myself from questions of value, of taste, of propriety, and even of literary worth."

Attending The Garden of Earthly Delights, she says, "I watched. And I watched myself watching. And I watched others watching. And I wondered how it felt to be flying and to be acting out those things nice folks don't talk about, but do, anyway. And I thought about risk taking. . . . Ultimately, it was an exercise in putting aside moral judgment in favor of expanding my horizons and of being open to the concepts of others.

"The ramifications of this exercise reach far beyond the doors of the Rep," she continues. "What else have I refused to look at, to see, to consider. . . . How limiting it is to view the world in a fixed context."

Next to Mij Convery's letter on my door is a picture, I think from an old AT&T ad, of a child with her hand partly covering her face, leaving available only one eye and a tentative incredulous smile. The caption says, "I can't look! I have to look! I can't look! I have to look!" We all have to look, even at those things which are hardest to look at. Each of us is a part of what photographer Robert Frank has called "the humanity of the moment," and to play our part fully, we must allow ourselves to be aware of every aspect of that moment and that humanity. A kind of death occurs when we enter the forum in blinkers and armor prepared to put up our placard "boring" because we are confused or "totally gross" because we are frightened or "wrong" because we think we already know the answer and this isn't it — or don't know the answer and want to pretend we do. Each of us has been taught, as Oscar Hammerstein says, "to hate and fear." Each of us, however ugly the word may seem to us, totes a heavy load of prejudice in our backpack. Each of us employs prejudgment as a means of controlling that which is other, that which is unknown. Each of us is prepared to reject what we haven't tasted. Well, I'm here to tell you, don't leave the table until you take three Girl Scout bites. Seize, as Mij Convery did, that "challenging opportunity to confront the discrepancies between your way of viewing the world and the interpretation of that same world by others." Don't close your eyes — you have to look.

And speaking of looking, let's remember that there are other ways to experience life besides thinking about it. On my by now infamous door is a tattered and yellowing op-ed piece from The New York Times titled "A Sensualist of the Best Kind." Writer and editor Mary Cantwell describes sitting at the hospital bed-side of a dear friend who is in the last painful stages of dying. In this antiseptic cloister all sensory responses are suppressed: blinds are drawn, conversations are whispered, telephones are muted, morphine drips. Emerging from this place which she hopes never to visit again, she is engulfed in an explosion of the senses: tulips, birdsong, "the pearlescent pink raincoat" and "rhinestone embroidered jacket" worn by women on the bus, which once she might have considered cheap and showy but now finds glorious because as she says they scream life.

"Look!" I used to say to my children, but I don't think I said it enough. If I had it to do over I would say, "Look!" 10 times a day, along with "Taste!" "Touch!" "Listen!" "Smell!"

In this academic world in which you may be encouraged to live inside your head, I echo Ms. Cantwell in a fervent reminder that the cerebral is not sufficient unto itself. There are colors to be tasted and aromas to be caressed; there's music to knock your eyes out, there are ideas to knock your socks off. I want you to experience life viscerally, with every pore open and every nerve ending quivering.

"Oblivious" — another ugly word — I want you to be vitally aware of the world and the people around you and the wonderful possibilities of a leaf or a smile or a corner or a cowpie. Take nothing for granted. Mary Cantwell remembers her friend as one of those people who had "the good fortune to experience this earth intensely. . . . There was a pear, very ripe, by her bed. Too tired to eat any more, she inhaled it. Today I wonder if she knew a phrase of Colette's about those pleasures — ‘so lightly called sensual.' I only know that she knew those pleasures and would have applauded the sentiment. She had no illusions about this world; even so, she thought it was Eden."

A year ago, I too sat at the bedside of a dying friend, a man who also "experienced this earth intensely." We had been friends for 40 years, ever since I was his freshman advisee at Whitman College. Although, or perhaps because, he was a man of deep intellect and broad knowledge, he never lost his ability to be a child, and we were drawn together by the joy we shared in a good silly giggle. Dick gave me the cartoon on my office door, from one of our favorite strips, Frank and Earnest. The setting is the Walla Walla Diner — Frank, the rather scruffy short order cook, leans over the counter to Earnest, his eager customer, and announces that the specials are cous cous, paw paw in agar agar, and mahi mahi. "And the sauce," inquires Earnest, to which Frank replies, "Tar tar."

I share Frank and Ernie with you, because were I your fairy godmother and could bestow upon you one gift, it would be a sense of humor. Sister Benedict in the delightful play Late Night Catechism tells us that the mark of our immortal soul, the thing that sets us apart from other animals, is that we don't hide under the bed when someone turns on a vacuum cleaner. If indeed we have an immortal soul, surely it has something to do with our ability to laugh at ourselves. I wish you a child's delight in the ironies and paradoxes in which we find ourselves. I wish you the ability to shed the veneer of sophistication, throttle the sneer, and enjoy a big guffaw at, and with, this world and yourself in it. Remember, if you don't stand on your dignity, no one can pull it out from under you. To be able to laugh at ourselves empowers us in a wonderful way: we don't have to laugh at other people.

As you might expect, my office door contains many references to the theatre. In a newspaper snippet called "Acting and Sports," theatre director John Pankow points to the similari-ties in these two performance arts. To be a student, to be an educated person, to contribute to the human moment is to be a performer: to go on stage, to run onto the field, in short to do what is the essence of performance: share yourself. You must be ready, in Ian McKellen's words, "to step out from the dust and the dark and put on a show." You must want, as Judi Dench says, to say something knowing "that the water beneath you is fathoms deep." You need, said Laurence Olivier, "all the guts in the world." You have to say, "Hey, look at me, I'm dancing." We've all been given the chance to be players. Get out of the dressing room; get off the bench. Take risks. To be a performer is dangerous; it's spitting in the face of mortality, knowing that even if you triumph in this moment, mortality will return to smack you one up the side of your head. John Pankow offers two great tips for all of us performers. First, "Stay in the moment: the minute you start to berate yourself for not having done something the way you think it should have been done, the minute you listen to those perfectionist voices, you get off your game." Second, your only competition is yourself. "Comparing yourself to your peers is a dead-end street. . . . The only thing you can do is go out every night and try to better yourself."

A postcard on my door reproduces Tom Phillips' portrait of the great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, sitting at a rehearsal for Waiting for Godot. The portrait incorporates these words from Beckett's Worstward Ho which Phillips has taken as a motto for his studio: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

I think the value of our lives is often measured in the nature of the challenges we undertake and the paths we choose in attempting to meet them. Will it be the Dixie Cup or the Holy Grail? Failure and fear of failure are a natural part of human growth. To stop trying is a kind of death. As you pass not only through Whitman College but the rest of your life, you will find it possible to "get away" with many things — but what you get away with is often not worth having. The challenges we choose may abet us in the challenges which are thrust upon us — having chosen well, we come better armed to the unavoidable battles. "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

On my door is a fortune from a fortune cookie, takeout Chinese being mother's milk to people who work in the theatre. Placed there I hope without too much sense of irony, it reads: "You will attract cultured and artistic people to your home."

I find myself today in a group of about 1,200 cultured and artistic people on a campus where there are probably 1,200 more in a town where there are another 30,000 — and I am painfully aware of how many of you and them I won't encounter "in my home" as it were. For those of you who have just arrived, a little town called Walla Walla may seem, as it did to me when I first arrived 41 years ago, the jumping off place of the universe. Having called it my home for more than 30 years, I would not trade it — it is a place of remarkable beauty and peace and a vital community filled with remarkable people. I hope that you will not, as I did when I was a freshman, feel lost if you stray more than a few blocks from campus and that you will seize the opportunity to encounter some of those remarkable people. . . .

You'll also have the chance to meet a lot of cultured and artistic people on this campus who don't have to march around in these black dresses twice a year — they care for buildings or plant flowers or catalog books or manage accounts or cook or make costumes or keep the hapless faculty from self-destructing. Don't miss the opportunity to say hello and get to know them.

And as for the cultured and artistic people here today, students, families, colleagues: my door with all the notes on it is open — I'd like to attract you to my home. While Commencement brings much to rejoice at (even though you do have to wear the black dress), I am always saddened and self-reproachful at the number of seniors I've never met, at the num-ber of those whom I do know whose families I don't know, at the number of my colleagues with whom I don't share acquaintance. In the years since I came to Whitman College as a student, we have grown larger, more complex, and inevitably increasingly concerned with our public persona, perhaps at the expense of our private identity. I rarely hear reference any more to what used to be a principal way we described ourselves: "the Whitman family." I'd like to think we still are a family, fraught with the same passions and united by the same care. So stop me, say hello, give me a handshake or better still a hug — come through my open door. As the cultured, artistic, and otherwise absolutely fabulous Mae West said, "Come on up and see me some time."

I wish many blessings, gentle and hard, manifest and in disguise, upon you all. Be kind to yourselves and to each other and may this be a year of joyous discovery for us all.

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