Sunday, August 24, 2014

Coming to the Table

I was honored to give the faculty welcome at this year's Opening Convocation.

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
Welcome, everyone. I come to you with an invitation from the generous and esteemed faculty members by my side, one that bespeaks the good will with which we seek to think and work with you; and one that I hope will sustain you during your four years here. I study the Middle Ages, so we’ll start there, but no worries, we’ll end up back here. Right around 1414, six hundred very full years ago, John, Duke of Berry, had a party. It was New Year’s Day, the traditional feast day for exchanging gifts in the Middle Ages, and he’d gathered his household around a huge feasting table for the occasion. The event is pictured in a lavish manuscript he had made, and the glorious January page of his Very Rich Hours shows us what we’ve come to expect of a medieval banquet scene: knights and attendants reveling, heraldic finery, fabulous tights, and a table groaning with tasty dishes. But, there is a strange apparition beneath, or rather, mingled within this feasting scene. Amidst all the pomp and circumstance, tiny golden letters etched in mid-air above the revelers’ heads hover to spell out the words “aproch, aproch.” Suspended within this busy, festive, at times confusing atmosphere is this quietly insistent invitation: “approach, approach.” Come to the table, sit with me, talk with me, let us be together and understand all this and more.
Tables are rather ordinary objects, but they do extraordinary things. They are by design level surfaces, usually of geometric shapes (squares, rectangles, and of course you can talk to King Arthur about a Round Table), and mostly made of sturdy no-nonsense material. Yet despite these standard measures, they create a series of transformative spaces, and I would even argue times, apart. They turn food into a meal; talking into conversation; gesture into ritual; and sitting into gathering. In the most unassuming way, they host relationships. There’s a desk in your dorm room right now, waiting to hold a treasured photograph of your roommate, an award that means the world to you, the biggest biochemistry or art history book either of you have ever seen, and the first of many (many) delivery bags from Marvin’s. There are dining tables where you’ll sit with someone that at one point you didn’t know but now look for; there’ll be makeshift tables where you’ll set down a dish you made from a home recipe to share with friends during one of our famous winter nights. And there are seminar tables (so many!) in your classrooms where students before you struggled and triumphed with difficult work, where tough questions were asked, where laughter burst out unexpectedly, and where ideas changed.
The professors here with me have prepared many tables for you. The upper reaches of Asbury hold some of the oldest tables at DePauw and your thoughts and contributions will join those of thousands before you, and herald yet more thousands to come. The Green Center has some of the newest, but the urge to make music that energizes the building has been a part of the human condition for millennia. The ones in Olin auditorium have a certain age, but they always make me like a member of some futuristic inter-stellar federation (a nice feeling actually). There are numerous tables for you to discover at DePauw, and each one is an invitation from a professor. Some will be more abstract than others: there are lab tables and there is the periodic table of the element; there are seminar tables and tables of content. Matter or metaphor, they call for you to gather around ideas and work hard to understand them. So accept them all; look at your schedule of classes as a series of invitations to the table. When you pull up your chair to a seminar table, you are entering into a magnificent conversation that engages you, your professor and your peers and radiates to wherever knowledge illuminates understanding.
You all, each and every one of you here today, brings something to the table: your experiences, your curiosities, your questions, and your differences. No one comes empty-handed; everyone has something to offer. Do so gladly; talk willingly. Listen to each other; strive towards the lines of poetry, equations, molecular models, dilemmas, paintings, marvels of botany, miracles of music, and models of social justice and struggle that your professors share with you. And let the table do its work: let it bring you closer together, and closer to knowledge that was only a faint outline before. Come to the table with every expectation of being transformed by what you will experience there.
           There’s a great deal going on today: you’re saying a few intense good-byes and more hellos than you can count. When you leave here, it will be to go with your First Year Seminar professor and peers to share a meal together – maybe not a medieval feast, but a first gathering, a first pulling up of chairs. It may be a while before you get a chance to rest. But when you do, I invite you to think ahead just briefly to the end of the semester, to the emotions and accomplishments of your sitting around a familiar table from home. Parents and caregivers, I invite you to think of that same moment, when this young person you love so very much returns to you and starts to tell you of what they now know. That will be a feast day. That will be a day to celebrate much. In the meantime, entering class of 2018, on behalf of the faculty of DePauw University, I warmly invite you to “approach, approach” and come to the table.

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