Sermons in Stones

Cowboy, outfielder, architect, trumpet player, lawyer, teacher and writerthese, more or less in order, were my notions of what I would do for my life’s work, at least through the age of 40. My “influences,” as pop musicians say, were many: TV shows like “My Friend Flicka” (a boy and his horse); my baseball card collection in the days of Mays, Mantle and Clemente; and the fetching daughter of a local architect known to my contractor father.

The trumpet era lasted longer and led to a life-long joy in music, despite the braces that wrecked my embouchure and made me to realize that the Chicago Symphony was not my destiny. I still wonder about the lawyer business from time to time, especially when I re-read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Michael Malone’s “Time’s Witness,” but I made the mistake in college of attending a hearing about a guy who wanted more for his abandoned building than the city was willing to pay—even the attorneys were bored.

All along, other stuff happened, stuff I never associated with “my work”: my dad hauled me around to building sites, blueprints rolled and tossed in the back of the Plymouth Belvedere, my grandparents put me to work in their orchard and everybody told me stories. I lived in a mythology of carpenters, apple trees and the stream of family stories that rolled over me without ceasing.

Why write this for our student newspaper?

It’s March, and spring break has ended. Some of you are finalizing post-graduation plans; some of you are, well, starting to think about them.  Some of you, I’d bet, worry about them. So let me offer some good news—you don’t know what will happen. You don’t know.

Doesn’t sound like good news? I remember still the feeling that I had to do something in order to justify my education—my life. I remember feeling that I had to narrow my choices—lawyer? college professor?—in order to succeed at any one of them. So I did and earned a doctorate in English.

But to my surprise, my life opened up again. Don’t mistake me. I loved, and I still love, being a college professor: no work can be better. But other paths appeared and led me here. What I want you to know is that all that “other stuff”—my childhood among builders, my orchard labors, my family’s stories—has as much or more to do with a life now wed to this college as does my formal training.

So when you graduate, go do something good—good for yourself, good for the world. Pick one thing or another. Chances are very high that it won’t be your only gig. And try to remember the good news that you don’t know how your life will unfold—or what seeds scattered across the rocky and fertile ground of your childhood will grow. Your life will open up, again and again. You don’t know. Thank God.


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