by Douglas Carlsen ’74
Director of the Bookstore

Baccalaureate Address, May 21, 2011

A few weeks ago, President Bridges invited me to make this address to you today. I was honored of course and readily accepted. Only later, I realized what doing so meant – a final paper and an oral exam. However, it appears my panel is slightly larger than yours. A testament, perhaps, to the 25 years taken to reach this moment.

Though we do not know everyone of you, nor do you know everyone of us, on behalf of the Whitman College staff, I welcome all of you to Baccalaureate. For you graduating seniors, this welcome is a preface to our farewell to you tomorrow.

Tomorrow will be a day of mixed emotions as you celebrate this transition from college student to graduate. But, now, here, in this hall, is a time of reflection. It is a time to recall who we were and who we have become. To realize how we have changed and grown during these last few years of turbulence. We have watched a world turned upside down and shaken to see what coins might fall from our collective pockets – and we, scrambling to claim our own again.

Somehow most of us came up short. The certainties on which this chaotic economy were based – insubstantial. The world as it moves forward – uncertain. But then it has always been so.

I first welcomed you to Whitman during your orientation week when I introduced the “Voices of Whitman” program. The essence of “Voices” is the telling of one’s story to provide insight beyond the visible, to stimulate thought and discussion regarding the many ways diversity can engage us should we wish to expend the effort. “Voices” asks us to go beneath the superficial image to discover the unknown “self”, and challenges us to cast aside the assumptions and examine the realities. “Voices” provides us, as well, with a realization that who we once were is not necessarily who we are now, or who we might become. Heraclitus knew of what he spoke - all is flux. Rivers being what they are - they flow. So it is with you and me.

By way of example, the superficial me has changed significantly since first we met. Assumptions made about who I was, or who I am, based on a braid of hair, may have proven true. Perhaps, not. It was in the conversations we had, the activities in which we participated, and the time spent in getting to know each other in more substantive ways that determined which was an accurate assumption and which was not.

My identity seems to be entwined with books and hair. I understand a seismic shift occurred last fall when my hair was shorn. Another shift occurred this spring when my retirement was announced. Books and hair. Who am I, without them, now?

Tomorrow is my last day as Bookstore Director and tomorrow is your last day as an undergraduate. You and I, we stand on the bank, staring at the moving water below. We can jump in as we like, but, at which moment, into which river. In jumping we change. In jumping we open ourselves up to our own potentials. We allow ourselves to explore who we are to become and to make meaning of our lives. As Marybaird Carlsen (my mom) wrote in her book “Creative Aging,”

“It is in our progressive, evolving, wondering, mysterious, creative meaning-makings that our lives take on a form, that we keep alive to the moment, [and] that we continue to grow even unto death.”

There are lessons each of us learn during our lives, too many to count. Here are seven, one for each day of the week. There are meanings within as well as without.

I was at the Balloon Stampede last weekend, and a vendor was selling this huge wand which, when dipped in some goo and waved about, created a huge bubble. We held our breath as it grew, amazed at its size, watching it in fascination, we were captivated by it. Though insubstantial, we were surprised and disappointed when it popped. We watched the next one grow, wanting it to remain, to drift on the breeze beyond the trees, rising ever higher and in our hope carrying us with it. It too popped.

Lesson #1 - Though we are drawn to them, be cautious of bubbles – they burst.

The Holi festival was Wednesday on Ankeny Field. As you probably know after four years at Whitman, participants are hosed down and colored powders are thrown, covering each in a rainbow of dripping vibrant colors. The air is filled with laughter, and the happiness of this contagiously fun celebration is all too evident on the faces of those who join in. The colors seen on them are evidence of the joyful spirit within.

Lesson #2 – Always wear some color to express the joy of living.

When I was age seven, friends and I stood in the basement of my home in Spokane. The morning sunlight shone through the window, illuminating the many dust motes floating there. We were discussing what we wanted to do or be when we grew up. I said I wanted to grow a beard and own a bookstore.

Lesson #3 – State your goals, you are more likely to attain them.

When I was young, my mother’s favorite saying was “de gustibus non est disbutandum.” My father’s was “shikata ga nai.”

Lesson #4 – Learn a second language to expand your world view.

I have had a ponytail in each decade of my life. It allows me to rethink who I am with it, and who I am without. It provides an opportunity to review decisions made and consider the future ahead. It also challenges the assumptions of those around me, about what is true and what is not.

Lesson # 5 – Change your hairstyle every 10 years as a way to reflect on your life.

When I was 12 or so, my father asked me for a loan for some small item he wished to purchase. He had no money so came to me.

Lesson #6 – Save money every month, money you do not touch, as a way to afford the important, alleviate the unexpected and cope with the vagaries of life.

Once as a child we drove from our home in Connecticut to Montreal where my cousins and family were boarding an ocean liner to travel to Europe. There were nearly 14 of us and we needed two station wagons to contain us all. One cousin returned to the ship to pick up something and I followed standing on the dock waiting for him to return. About 10 minutes later I realized everyone had gone. So I sat on a bench to wait their inevitable return. While sitting there a gentleman in dirty tattered clothes sat down and began speaking to me in French (see Lesson #4). Each pungent exhalation emphasized with a gesture. When my parents returned he turned to them opening his arms and beaming at me as if to say, “You see, they have come back for you.”

Lesson # 7 – Kindness can be appear from any quarter, so be willing to give in kind.

Tomorrow, we graduate, you and I. Many things beckon. Possibilities. Not yet realities.

But soon.

And yet. And yet.

waves washing
against the shore
speak an unseen truth,
the river, by flowing,
finally made it to the sea.