On May 29 at 3 p.m., I went for a walk. I know the time because of the tolling in the St. Edmund bell tower across the street. Immediately after that, I heard the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” a lovely piece of music, when removed from its usual context.
In its usual context, it borders on cliché because it is played so often at graduation ceremonies. No doubt this rendition wafted from Oak Park Stadium, marking the commencement of the Class of 2021 Commencement.
Pleasant and Grove is a far cry from East and Lake, but it sounded near and clear and lovely. No doubt this can be explained by a good sound system and a bell-clear day and blue-dome sky that allows sound to carry. It was still perfectly audible as I reached Pleasant Home, which is even further afield from the Oak Park Stadium field. I wondered how far the sound carried to all points of the circled radius, which I figured took in a good portion of the village, since Oak Park and River Forest High School is centrally located.
Other Oak Parkers might have wondered at that very moment where this lovely music was coming from, perhaps making the high school connection, perhaps not. The graduates themselves, row upon row on the football field, were probably unaware of how many village residents were “eavesdropping” on their ceremony.
Well, if they’re reading this, now they know.
It made me think about the word “commencement.” Just when you think something is coming to an end, they tell you it’s the beginning. Ready, set, live!
The beginning of the rest of your life. Which happens every minute of every day for the rest of your life, when you think about it. If you think about it.
I thought about it and decided to make this my commencement too. Memorial Day weekend is a week from my birthday after all, and the first week of June always feels like a commencement — a bright, new season — more than some long-ago anniversary of my arrival on the planet.
Listening to the music, I decided the theme of this year’s commencement would be: Beauty always find us.
But you have to pay attention. So I paid attention.
The next day I attended a breakfast at FitzGerald’s, the beginning of a long goodbye for Rev. Alan Taylor, senior minister of Unity Temple Unitarian-Universalist congregation, which has grown considerably over the past 18 years under his leadership. He has decided to take the road less traveled, wherever that may lead. Our birthdays fall on the same day (not the same year), so we are twin sons of the Zodiac as well as kindred spirits. The weather was beautiful and spirits were buoyant. There is no happiness quite like a bunch of Unitarians gathered in-person for the first time in over a year.
Among the scribbled messages on cards to be placed in Alan’s scrapbook, I wrote:
You welcomed me where I was on my life’s journey,
You invited me to come as I am,
You put love at the top of our spiritual agenda,
You built a bridge with West Side ministers
You helped ease the pain of those at the Rio Grande.
Thank you for practicing what you preached.
I have another birthday buddy, Fr. Jim O’Connor, who grew up in Oak Park, was co-pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress in Europe in 1944, joined New Melleray Abbey in 1949, a Trappist Cistercian Monastery in Iowa, and is still there, though much diminished by the absence of short-term memory and hearing, but still filled with a joy that can neither be explained nor dismissed. Born in 1924, on my birthdate and the same year my dad was born, Jim just turned 97. I wish we could talk like the old days as he played hooky from Compline, the last chapel gathering of the day, but I know what he’d say if we were together, in that lilting, musical voice: “Well anyway … Ken, I think you and I play for the same team.”
We also have the same favorite philosophy, Existential Phenomenology, which basically answers the question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The existential phenomenologist would answer, “It doesn’t matter unless someone is there to listen.” Which has some profound implications — beauty, for instance. Is beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Is it merely subjective? I think the universe is beautiful in and of itself but has just been waiting for human beings who are receptive to beauty to come along and appreciate it. Do we seek out beauty or does beauty find us? A little of both. I learned this from my walking partner, Marty Swisher, who believes beauty is proof of, and connection to, the divine. Prayer, she says, makes her more receptive to beauty. And she brings beauty to others, usually in the form of music, but in other ways, too. She is, as Fr. Jim O’Connor would say, “a beautiful person” (it’s beautiful the way he says it). “I’ll take your word for it,” Marty replies, skeptically. I say she must because we are existential phenomenologists.
I am lucky to have so many people of beauty in my life.
Like Bill Burke, a rarity among priests. When he preaches, he makes you believe. Of course, you have to want to believe, but his preaching makes you want to believe. He lives in a retirement facility in the far south suburbs and has become their de facto chaplain. At lunch last week, he tells me he loves the parable of the sower and the seeds. Some seed fell on rocky ground or was choked by weeds. But some fell on fertile soil.
I spent much of my life wanting to be the one who sows seeds. Not anymore.
I want to be fertile soil.
I want to be receptive when beauty finds me.
And beauty always finds us.