Siege Diaries 6/7/2021

Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: What mentors do I follow–alive or dead?

“We can truly choose whose children we’d like to be,” says the quote from Seneca that goes with today’s meditation.

I wouldn’t choose any other parents.

But I have learned greatly from mentors–not so much parents, but colleagues and friends. Those who I have known personally I have walked beside, learning, exchanging ideas and thoughts, ever switching the roles of mentor and protege, student and teacher. Those who I only know through what they have left–their words, their music, their deeds–I feel as if I am in dialogue still with their lives, their works, their harmonies. And they inspire me. They give me permission to feel. They give me impetus to grow. They give me momentum to care.

For for a good life
We just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go

Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow


You there. In the ugly gold graduation gown, which is a little too big. (You’ve attached a Rush pin to the button on top, about as rebellious as it gets for you).

You’ve processed in. You’ve settled into your seat. It’s the second one in the front row. Your boyfriend is playing in the band. You’re still in love with him. You look up at the ceiling, at the immense, ornate chandelier. There will be a time, still to come, when you will revel in the history of this place. You’ll see old Hollywood movies here. You’ll see a musical with your father, years after your mother has died, based on a movie that is still just a movie at this point, a movie you haven’t yet seen. You’ll see a performance of a symphony that changed your life by a composer who only died ten years ago, as you sit there in your seat.

You’ve got your life planned, haven’t you? You’ve given your mind to science, a love affair that’s been going on, to some extent, since your were eight. You’ve made sure to take every science class offered, and earned As in all of them. You took the advanced math classes, and you learned just that evening that you’d pulled out an A in Calculus, that you truly will graduate with that 4.0 average that earned you a shared spot on the stage. But you know that, deep down, physics and chemistry equations, or the functions of a cell, none of that speaks to your soul. Maybe that’s why your speech–your part of it–speaks more of the arts.

Your heart is given over to the humanities. You just don’t know it. Smart kids, after all, pursue what we’ll be calling in the future STEM, so of course you are, you who measure your self-worth largely by your grades. But you’ll be talking about Brit Lit and Shakespeare Seminar decades after this night. You’ll still be yearning for the time you played a Beethoven symphony in orchestra. You’ll not only remember your French, you will have learned other languages. You don’t know it, but the spark of history was lit in the eighth grade, maybe even earlier. It burns low, but steady, ready to be fanned into full flame within the year.

Nothing will go as planned after that.

You’ll break up with the boyfriend, right around the time you break up with your genetics major. You’d been messing around with history and classics behind its back. You’ll still want those advanced degrees, but now in history. Now, spreading your wings, confined no longer by a narrative of a love for a high school sweetheart, you’ll no longer look only to schools in the city where you’ve lived your whole life. You’ll go north, to Toronto, discovered not so long before this night. You’ll find love. You’ll make Canada your home, your hearth. You’ll see Columbus as a visitor.

And even that will change and bend with time. You’ll get your PhD, but you will forsake your love once again in favour of life, a life more closely under your control, unfettered by the pursuit of tenure-track positions while you toil in adjunct hell. Your parents, older than those of your friends, will pass, first your mother, then eight years later, your father.

Of course, you don’t see that, sitting there. This is all in the future.

There are people in this room you’ll never see again, after tonight. Three of the four guys you are speaking with, for instance–they will utterly disappear from your life, not long after this night. The fourth will follow a few years later. Even the still-to-come invention of social media will not bring them back. But yet, there are people in this room–some who you barely know–who you will know more of in the future, after your paths have diverged and reconverged, and you will learn of where their lives have taken them, and you will be stunned at the places they have gone and lived, the things they have done and not done. But you, sitting there, still believe you will never leave this city.

As time passes, the seats, all full, will begin to empty. It will be slow at first, a trickle, but then a steady slow leak of the lives that once intersected in this place and time. You will see their pictures, years later, look them up, see how they were at this moment. They, too, will go forth from this place into the future, one shorter than yours, laughing, celebrating, as you will.

This school you are leaving? It is already changing profoundly. You are one of the last valedictorians to be so designated under the old system, without weighted grades. Future speakers will not be chosen based on class rank. The school will morph into something occupying the same physical space your high school occupied, but the teachers will retire, and soon you will be a photograph in an old yearbook, and then the building itself will disappear, without you having ever walked its halls again. You will be a young adult, and then you will be middle aged, and your youth will seem like a John Hughes movie–remember The Breakfast Club? It will be brightly-coloured, like the 1980s, but oddly tinged with fears about nuclear war.

Within the next year, you’ll remember where you were when the Challenger blew up. You’ll hear about Chernobyl, but somehow nuclear power will have ceased to be so frightening. In a few decades, you’ll watch a miniseries about it and be fascinated by its ruins.

You, getting ready to speak. You’re strong in your faith. You do not know it yet, but from this point on, it will diminish, finally fading into something else, perhaps a twilight sky, perhaps mere abstraction. The mysteries of the universe will still move you, and your moral compass will still be firm, but you will no longer seek the answers in a single place. This, at this moment, would be incomprehensible.

I can see you going up to the stage, and I can see through your eyes, because they are mine. This is a liminal space, one whose significance you only partially understand.

Do you feel me here with you? The words you are speaking tell of the arts and of community. You believe in them passionately. I believe in them passionately.

I feel myself again, looking out into the future, but only if I close my eyes. I might need to weaken, and find somewhere to grow. To go where I’m needed.

It will not be what you expected. It is still unfolding, after thirty-six years. But I believe in you. All of you. You’ll figure it out.

For the UAHS Class of 1985.


When the color of the night
And all the smoke for one life
Gives way to shaky movements
Improvisational skills

A forest of whispering speakers
Let’s swear that we will
Get with the times
In a current health to stay

Let’s get friendship right
Get life day to day
In the forget yer skates dream
Full of countervailing woes

In diverse as ever scenes
Proceeding on a need to know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow

For for a good life
We just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go

Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Go somewhere we’re needed

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