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Good Letters

silhouetted image of a woman standing in front of a window, mostly in dark. outside it is bright, light, and airy, inside you can only see the silhouettes of things. the windows open outwards, the image feels hopeful. The following is adapted from an address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing commencement ceremony last month.

For centuries, wise men and women of various traditions have troubled the terms being and becoming, without arriving at anything like conclusion. We affirm the beauty and joy of being—being writers, being Christians, being laborers in and lovers of a complex realm that is concurrently material and spiritual. Still, in the very midst of our being, we are obliged to affirm the efficacy of becoming, the call to be ever becoming.

During our residency we shared the deep pleasure of poring over Holy the Firm, a delicious if challenging text by the beloved Annie Dillard. Among the many provocative passages in that book, Dillard attends to the gap between what is known and what is.

“Here is the fringey edge,” she writes, “where elements meet and realms mingle, where time and eternity spatter each other with foam. The salt sea and the islands—molding and molding, row upon rolling row—don’t quit, nor do winds end nor skies cease from spreading in curves.”

Later in the book, she offers the following:

And now outside the window, deep on the horizon, a new thing appears, as if we needed a new thing. It is a new land blue beyond islands, hitherto hidden by haze and now revealed, and as dumb as the rest. I check my chart, my amateur penciled sketch of the skyline. Yes, this land is new, this spread blue spark beyond yesterday’s new wrinkled line, beyond the blue veil a sailor said was Salt Spring Island. How long can this go on? But let us by all means extend the scope of our charts.

How long can this go on—this continuing discovery of one new thing, then another, with each discovery requiring that we revise our sense of where we stand, and of what lies before us?

At any given point along our journeys—and this is perhaps especially true for points like today’s profound occasion—we may be tempted to think that we have arrived at our destinations, that we now see as clearly and as far as need be. We may be tempted to pitch our tents just here, to make camp—as it were, and to stay put—to do, hereafter, as we have done. We may be tempted to hang up a shingle announcing that we are pleased to be. Just so.

That would be a shame.

Being and becoming are, duly considered, two dispositions of a common and coherent life. It is both meet and right to honor where we have been, to acknowledge what has assisted our awareness of our being here now; it is meet and right to honor the moment, the momentous moment, as such.

Still, any commencement—is most efficacious if it occasions our considering what it is that is now commencing.

That would be our becoming.

That would be our moving ahead into the persons we are called to become, the writers we want very much to become.

It is our hope and prayer that every lesson gleaned over the past two-and-a-half years of your labor has been felt to be a worthwhile lesson, that every book you’ve read, every annotation you’ve written, every seminar discussion has contributed to your finding your feet, assisted in strengthening and toning your discursive, linguistic muscle, and has nourished you with food for the journey ahead.

At the very least, it is our hope and our prayer that you have developed a dialogical relationship with the deep tradition of letters that precedes you, and that you have found the faith, the courage, and the discipline to enter under your own terms into that longstanding and ongoing conversation.

All of this is to say that as we stand here, at the “fringey edge” of the thus far known, thus far articulated world, you may yet apprehend something of the always more that is yet to be seen, and named, and shared. Even as we pray that you feel duly equipped to continue the work without us, we want to assure you that we will always be here when you need us.

Brávo sas, as the Greeks like to say. Kalí epitikía. Good success!


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Scott Cairns

Scott Cairns has published eight poetry collections, a book of translations, a spiritual memoir, and a book-length theological essay. He is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and of the Denise Levertov Award. He is Curators’ Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Missouri, and directs the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University.

Image by Super Awesome on flickr, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

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