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Rite Now

Commencement is a rare moment that is both end and beginning. The day seems stretched by its gravity, its hours elongated by ceremony. But the rite, a tenuous instant in time, passes. It doesn’t last long.

At commencement, we leave a campus. As years go by, many of us remember longingly our college experience, focusing on the place. When we do return, we discover that the place is no longer as it was. Alumni sometimes speak wistfully, even sadly, of an open space that has been built upon, a beloved professor’s office now occupied by a stranger. It’s like the jolt of an earthquake that strikes the place where our memories live. Reality shifts memory’s ground.

Place is what we miss the most, not time. But college equals place plus time. As we leave campus when the commencement ritual ends, we are walking out of a time.

Time surrounds us. But we don’t see it as readily as we see the buildings in which we study, work, eat and sleep. Though we live within time, it’s as if the moments, hours, days or months are more invisible than air. And that’s ironic: The places we live in — with structure and terrain — we remember even though they change. But the time we live in, both fleeting and precious, leaves us every second. We live lives of continual shedding.

But we have the next minute, the next hour and the next day to live in with friends, family members, colleagues or others. With age, we learn to understand how to live in time. If the engineers among us shape the built environment that we all partake in, then we all shape our temporal environment.

The poet Miller Williams, whose time ended when he died this past January, was the son of a Methodist minister. His poem “Entropy” speaks to the importance of our allotted time. Miller wrote cleverly about how God may see the world, yet he would have been the last to claim to be a theologian. But it must be God who greets us when, as Williams writes, “there is not a sound.”

You say Hello and part of what you spend
to say it goes to God. There is a tax
on all our simplest thoughts and common acts.
It will come to pass that a friend greets friend
and there is not a sound. Thus God subtracts
bit by little bit till in the end
there is nothing at all. Intend. Intend.