It was a true joy to have many members of our parent community join us on campus for our first-day of school assembly this year. May we never lose sight of how lucky we are to be together in person! What follows are the words I shared with students and parents at that gathering on Tuesday morning.
So, this summer I quit Twitter. It was the last of my social media accounts, which I’ve shuttered one by one over the years. Each time I’ve done so, I’ve felt a pang of concern—how will I remain connected (to family or friends, fellow educators or poets, to the world) in the absence of this network humming brightly from my pocket or laptop? And each time I do close an account, I realize that I do not in fact feel less connected to the world—quite the opposite, really: I am refreshed by the absence in my day of any concern over what is trending, or has the most likes. There is a very famous poem about precisely this, and though it was written about two hundred years before Facebook was an idea, it still resonates. In about 1802, William Wordsworth wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
For Wordsworth, in the early days of the first industrial revolution, he saw a disconnect between the inherent awe and beauty of the natural world, and the inability of the busy city dwellers newly arrived on the scene to pay attention to that world. Just imagine what he would make of all of us mutely staring down at our phones as we navigate our days.
Last year, when we began out here on the bluetop together, I talked about being a blessing, and how Jewish tradition reminds us that welcoming someone, with a hug or a hello, a smile or a wave, is one way that we can be a blessing in the world.
As we’ve returned to school this year, I’ve been talking with folks in the community—our parents’ association, our faculty and staff—about gratitude, which is at the core of any blessing. I feel so grateful for the strength of this community, for the way everyone came together and made the most of these past few strange, challenging years. And so I was reflecting on how Jewish practice teaches us to stop and be grateful: for the changing month, for a first step or day at school, for the apparition of a rainbow in the sky.
And what is the nature of that gratitude? What, ultimately, are we being asked to do, when we stop and say a blessing? I think the act of blessing is, ultimately, about paying attention. To the sunset, to our own breathing, to the miracle of our bodies. And that work of paying attention is about getting in tune with the world around us—being mindful of the rhythms and flows of the sea, of time, of our connection to the ancestors who came before us, and our connections right now to one another.
As Richard Powers put it, in his book Bewilderment which I read this summer:
“There are four good things worth practicing. Being kind toward everything alive. Staying level and steady. Feeling happy for any creature anywhere that is happy. And remembering that any suffering is also yours.”
So, Brandeis, let’s remember to pay attention this year: to what’s in our hearts, and to the smiles or worries on each other’s faces. Let’s be kind, and steady. Let’s celebrate each other’s joys, and lift each other up when we are hurt or in need of a friend. Let’s continue to be a blessing to each other, each and every day—and remember to be grateful for this amazing world that we share, and share in the work of repairing. Here’s to a great school year.