The canny young women of National Cathedral School's Class of 1999 invited a columnist to deliver their commencement address, knowing that no matter what columnists say, they say it briefly. However, you can no more embarrass a columnist than you can a sofa, and this one recalled that 18 years earlier, in a column alerting the world to the birth of a member of the Class of 1999, Victoria, he had prophesied:
"For many years young Victoria, wearing blue velvet dresses, will sit demurely reading Louisa May Alcott. When she becomes interested in, and interesting to, young men she will be sent to school at a thick-walled convent high on a steep mountain overlooking an inaccessible valley in a remote region of Portugal."
Well, we live and learn. Indeed, the happiest people live to learn. They live for the delightful astonishments that never stop coming to those who never stop learning.
So, said the columnist to the Class of 1999: Go through life with, figuratively speaking, a crick in your neck from looking back at the path by which humanity got to today. It is a path littered with true stories that astonish. Understand that happiness is a talent, one that immunizes you against being bored. Boredom is sinful because, as a character says in a Saul Bellow novel, "Boredom is the shriek of unused capacities."
The process of learning, for which college is society's most luxurious setting, produces delightful astonishments with a wondrous prodigality. But, then, all of life is littered with astonishments for adults blessed with a childlike capacity for amazement.
G.K. Chesterton said: A 7-year-old is amazed when told that Tommy opened the door and found a dragon. A 3-year-old is amazed when told that Tommy opened the door. Rightly so. Opening a door -- the operation of the hand; the fact of volition -- is astonishing, if you think about it.
Thinking -- learning -- is so rich in astonishments, waste not a minute: Plunge in, this summer, this afternoon. Time is scarce. Remember, if you spend just two minutes a day brushing your teeth, over the next 50 years you will spend 600 hours brushing. If you spend -- and you should -- even just 15 minutes a day during baseball season reading box scores, there go another 2,187 hours.
Considering our remarkably, sometimes disconcertingly, articulate daughters, can it be just a generation ago that young women were said to need "assertiveness training"? We parents know our daughters regard us as faintly ridiculous. There was a medieval pope who once a year walked Rome's streets wearing a ludicrous hat, to discourage excessive veneration. The excesses of today's young women do not include excessive veneration of parents, who always, as it were, wear silly hats. But our daughters are implicated in what we are.
Biologically, adults produce children. Spiritually, children produce adults: Most of us do not grow up until we have helped children do so. Thus do the generations form a braided cord. As Victoria knows.
Seven-and-a-half years ago, when Victoria was 11, the columnist told her that he and Mrs. Will were going to have a baby. Victoria, calculating at warp speed, instantly burst into tears, exclaiming, "Now you won't cry when I go away to college!" Actually, David, as the baby became, is now a 7-year-old who worships his sister, and his inclusion in the human party has increased by one the throng that will feel desolation when Victoria and her classmates disperse to colleges.
So, said the columnist to the Class of 1999: Three months hence, when you are outward bound, we who love you with an intensity you cannot imagine and that you will not know until you experience the astonishment of parenthood, will have aching holes in our lives. This is as it must be.
There is in life a lot of taking leave, of letting go. But to assuage our pain, when you are at college, studying what college students study, from the causes of wars to the cures for hangovers, write us letters.
You look puzzled. Ah: You do not know what letters are. The description will astonish you.
Once upon a time, before cell phones and e-mail, primitive people who wished to communicate with people far away produced -- by hand, no less -- artifacts called letters that recipients could hold in their hands and cherish, as we, your parents, have held and cherished you. We will bind your letters into packets, using red ribbons like those with which we adorned you, just a few flown years ago.