Children Commence, Parents Let Go

Flowers for JustinFlowers for Justin

dove31This past Saturday St. Mary’s College held its graduation and, as always, it was a time of good-byes. Good-byes are the theme of today’s post.

One good-bye was to poet Lucille Clifton, a former member of the faculty whose poem “blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)” has become a regular part of our Commencement ceremonies. Lucille was not there to read the poem, as she has in the past—she died in February–so we played a recording of her reading it. It was a very powerful moment. Here’s the poem:

blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back    may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

I have written previously about this poem and its place in our Commencement. But I have something new to report. Two weeks ago my wife and I sailed on the replica of one of the boats referred to in the poem to honor the 10-year anniversary of the death of our son Justin.

Here is some background you need to know. The poem refers to the annual “Blessing of the Fleet” that is commemorated at St. Clement’s Island (Maryland) every October. In 1633 the Ark and the Dove set sail for Maryland, for which George Calvert, First Lord of Baltimore, had received a charter. Lucille must have attended one of these blessings. In the poem, she is imagining waving good-bye to the ships, whose voyagers must have felt that they were sailing into the great unknown. The Dove was a tiny ship and, in fact, eventually sank in one of its voyages. All aboard were drowned.

In the hands of Lucille, the event becomes about letting go. Our children and our students first sail into the lip of our understanding, as if into a cup. No sooner do we as parents and teachers feel that we have gotten to know them, than off they sail again. As they move into the future, we stand waving to them from the shore.

But if we have done our job, they feel our love in their sails. They may have kissed us and then turned from us, but they know we love them back and have their back. That’s why they can sail confidently.

Sailing on the Dove that Sunday with Lucille’s poem in my head was more meaningful than I can say. The expedition was set up for both Justin and our recently departed friend Maurine Holbert-Hogaboom. Maurine, a 98-year-old former New York actress, had married (late in life) General Bobby Hogaboom, the man who founded the St. Mary’s Historical Commission. HSMC reconstructed the original St. Mary’s City (Maryland’s first capital), and it seemed fitting to honor both Maurine and Justin through this boat ride.

We motored out and had a small service with Reverend John Ball near the spot in the river where Justin had drowned (and in sight of Maurine’s house overlooking the river).  Then we cast flowers into the water. As I stood in the bow of the boat, its prow cutting through the waves on a blustery but sunny morning, I thought of Justin and Maurine and Lucille sailing into “water water waving forever.” I hoped that they felt our love in their sails.

I felt something similar Saturday when I listened to the recording of Lucille while looking out over the St. Mary’s River. Our students were about to set out on their own journeys and they were both excited and very scared. The world doesn’t seem like a very inviting place at the moment—in fact, more than a few will have trouble finding work and will live at home for a while—but the appropriately named “commencement” ceremonies functioned as our own “blessing of the boats at St. Mary’s.”

May they sail, in their innocence, from this to that.

Bonus poem

Here’s another Lucille Clifton poem that is appropriate for graduations. In her personal life, I believe, Lucille was not very good at letting her children go. Maybe she had to write this poem to reconcile herself with the fact that they had to leave:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves

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