Summer School

By Lisa Gail Collins

September 4, 2019

My warmest welcome to all who are new to Vassar, and to those who have been here before.

I am so glad you’re here—It is an honor and a treat to be in your presence as part of this official opening to the academic year.

It came as a surprise to me to realize that today marks the 45th time I’ve gone “back to school.” It was September 1973 when my life first began to be organized around the school year. And all I recall of that big day in 1973 is walking with my older next-door neighbors to kindergarten (at Fairfax Elementary School in Cleveland Heights, Ohio) and skipping over the cracks in the sidewalk, as they insisted and so eagerly showed me how to do. And ever since then, come September (skipping or not) I’ve been some form of student, teacher, or both—and going back to school. And, I should add that, in that place and time—a first ring suburb of Cleveland in the 1970s—the goals for kindergarten were to skip, hop, recognize the letters, sing songs, play nicely with others, zip your coat, tie your shoes, and blow your own nose—and as my mom was a kindergarten teacher, I was in pretty good shape.

The rhythm of my life—like many of yours, I imagine—is shaped by the rhythm of the school year and the cycle of the seasons.

And so right now—perhaps like many of you—I’m feeling both the sad tug of having to turn away (once again) from summer (a season I love with all my heart) and, at the same time, feeling excited, and a little daunted, by the promise and possibility of a brand-new school year—new students, new colleagues, new ways of being and knowing (I hope), and new ways of moving forward.

I’m just about ready to lean into and fully commit to fall (and today I relished my first day of class), but here and now I’d like to share with you some of what I learned this summer.

One thing I love about summer is that, for me, as a teacher—as a 9-month faculty employee—I have just about an entire season—12 precious weeks—to reconnect with my own pace, my own practices, and my own path, particularly now that I’ve paid off my student loans and my kids can feed and fend for themselves.

So instead of running from class to meeting with a quickly cooling coffee in hand like I so often do during the school year, I have the luxury—the incredible luxury—of structuring my own day and shaping, at least in part, how it might unfold. And when I have this incredible luxury—this gift which I am so deeply grateful for—when my own intuition and inner rhythm have the time and space to emerge, the ways and words of my late parents often surface and become clearer to me. When left to my own devices, my parents ways of being in, and engaging with the world—as I recall them—clearly speak to me and guide my own.

And this summer, for whatever reason, I became more keenly aware of some of the life lessons my parents had shared through their actions and routines, and I came to realize that they had offered me a rich set of sustaining practices. [requires effort, holds desire, and enables ease]

I came to realize I had received an invaluable (and intangible) inheritance. And this inheritance—my inheritance—is what I want to share with you now. By way of telling a couple stories from my summer and my larger life, I want to share with you, some of the things I carry. And, while listening, if you decide there’s anything that might possibly be of use to you—please, by all means—take it and shape it to best serve you.

  1. Chores

My father modeled the value of getting an imposing task over with in the morning.

My clearest memory of this is the early summer morning (when I was probably around 10) that he called me to his side to hold steady his rickety ladder while he cleaned out the clogged gutters on our garage. While my mother grimaced from the house, I beamed with pride knowing that I was literally holding up my father and keeping him safe. Until, that is, he began throwing down gloved fistfuls of all that had been clogging the gutters—and a showering of wet leaves, acorns, whirligigs, feathers, sticks, and a decomposing squirrel carcass flew past my face and fell at my feet.

And, I want to believe he did this unthinkingly, forgetting his dutiful daughter was right below. And recently, when I saw something called “gutter guards” at the hardware store, I stopped in my tracks mid-aisle and wondered out loud: could he have possibly known about these?

Clearly, I’m still living with this very visceral gutter-cleaning experience and I’m thankful I don’t have a garage, but, I have to say, I’ve come to appreciate a lesson lingering behind this still ripe memory. And that is: try to get this kind of formidable task over with in the morning (perhaps with someone to help you) so you can get it behind you, rightly feel a sense of accomplishment, (shower if you need to), and begin to shape a better rest of the day.

This lesson animated me this summer. My father’s routines and ways of working shaped many of my mornings. Over the summer, I repeatedly woke up determined to tackle some of the chores he would have tackled over the summer. And believe me, this intuitive urge, my eager summer morning drive to take on grim chores made the people I live with miserable. They watched me—from the couch—in horror.

For example, one overcast morning after a couple days of earth-soaking rain, I just knew it was the perfect opportunity to pull the weeds in our soggy yard. “Just let the worms do the work,” I could hear my Dad say, speaking of the way writhing worms function like hoes in loosening the soil and making weeding by hand as easy as it’s ever going to be.

But, for some reason, none of the fabulous people I live with felt this same call—this urge—to go out and weed on this dark damp morning. I paid them little mind, however, as deep down I already knew I’d inherited my Dad’s way of working and had entirely failed to pass it on. Plus, I also knew that when I worked in this way—in his way—I would have the gift of his presence and an opportunity to inwardly revel in my memories of him, and of us.

  1. Chores

My father also modeled the value of preparatory work.

Another part of my Dad’s way of working was to focus intently on the preliminary work—the gathering, assembling, and readying of all the materials needed to complete a task. His feeling was, I think, that if you prepped well, you’d already accomplished the hard half of your project and the rest would flow. I remember witnessing firsthand this aspect of his way of working when he would prepare to resume—each summer—his never-ending project of painting our house. His practice was to paint one side of our 3-story home every summer, rotating, in this way, around its four sides for decades.

And even though this Herculean task was thoroughly modeled and normed for me as a child, an adolescent, and an adult, I, for some reason, have no intention or desire (or capacity) to take on this astonishingly humble, frugal, and ambitious task. And yet I will forever be awed by the extraordinary effort, courage, patience, and persistence that lay behind it. I’m still trying to recall why my father, who worked downtown as a social worker for forty years is so associated with summer in my memory. And I think it’s because he used his vacation days over the summer to be at home with the rest of us, and to tackle his chores.

My father’s painting practice surfaced for me this summer in one very tiny, very unremarkable way. One day in June, when the weather report promised three consecutive clear, cool, low-humidity days, I just knew this was the nod to paint the porch. And with my father’s words in my mind—“painting is all about preparation, Lees”—I spread out my tarp and proceeded to gather and ready the needed supplies. And then, just like he had taught me, I painted my back porch from top to bottom—starting with the ceiling, then making my way down to the railings, and, finally, ending with the floor.

But while prematurely basking in a sense of accomplishment, I scanned my work and realized intensely and immediately—that I had forgotten an essential step—I hadn’t first sanded and primed a rough area that needed it. “Oh honey,” I could just hear my dad say: “Take the time to do things right.”

The lessons my father conveyed by way of his exemplary painting practice are always reinforced when I witness with awe the union painters on campus doing their skilled work in the very way my father so admired—with thorough preparation, careful precision, steady hands, and an abiding patience—expertly moving through all the necessary steps.

My father was quiet and introspective and there was a kind, calm way things happened around him. He was a healer and a confidant (a man who listened for a living). My mother was the opposite—an extrovert through and through, most everything about her was active, social, and in motion. She was a community creator and sustainer.

  1. Ice Cream and Swimming

With the hot sun of July, I calmed down on tackling my father’s chores and switched to more of my mother’s mode. Her height of summer ways involved swimming and ice cream. My memory is of her in a red bathing suit with a dripping chocolate cone in hand.

As you might imagine, although the fabulous people I live with weren’t (for whatever reason) feeling the call to tackle my father’s chores, when I switched to the summer afternoon ways of my mother, I found eager and excellent company.

Although I don’t remember my mother playing or hanging out with kids, kids were always near her on hot summer days. For she was a sure thing. If you were in her orbit on an 85-degree day you could count on getting an ice cream and a trip to a water source—either a natural body of water (if Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River during the 1970s and 80 count as natural?) or the neighborhood pool.

For her—a kindergarten teacher who knew that bodies need to move—swimming held healing properties and was the answer to most of the mundane challenges of summer:

So, for example, if you told her you were hot, she’d say “go for a swim”

And if you dared tell her you were bored, she’d say “go for a swim”

If you had a minor cut, she’d say, “the chlorine will clean it out”

And if anything on your skin was bitten, swollen, or itchy, she’d tell you to “jump in the water and forget about it”

Water—and swimming within it—were balms for my mother. But perhaps even more than water, ice cream was fundamental to her existence and, in fact, it was the only food she seemed to appreciate at the very end of her life, even after she was refusing water.

So, it was impossible and agonizing and—with the healing grace of time—also incredible that my brother somehow, some way was able to make his way home—from Charlotte, NC to Cleveland, OH, via the local ice cream shop—to offer and share in our mother’s last meal, a tiny dish of soft, chocolate ice cream.

  1. The Wisdom of When to Rest

Although I became so keenly aware over the summer of lessons I’d learned from my parents, perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned this summer was from a stranger at the Bard pool.

As I live in the City of Kingston, my go-to indoor pool is the one at Bard College. During the hot stretch in August, I found myself craving an escape from both the sun and the heat, and for a string of days I made my way to the Bard pool at around 6 at night. On those early evenings, I didn’t really swim. What my body seemed to need more than an active swim was a passive soak in a temperature lower than my own. After a few days, I realized there were a couple of us sharing in this ritual. There were three of us who seemed to be silently engaged in this act of submerging and surrendering our bodies in the shallow end of the pool right before it closed for the night—lingering until the student lifeguard kindly told us it was time to leave.

Now it is quite possible that all three of us were sharing in this ritual as a way of addressing a shared life stage—as a natural way to lower our inner thermostats and lessen all the heat our bodies were producing, but I don’t know that for certain, as we remained silent and still.

But one evening at closing, the three of us found ourselves all lined up in the locker room as we wiggled out of our swimsuits, showered, and prepared for our nights. The woman closest to the showers spoke first. She said: “That swim gave us the fortitude we’ll need for the rest of the night.” I promptly agreed, and started thinking of all the things I might still try to accomplish on the hot night that lay ahead.

But then—and I’d never seen this before and I will never forget it—the woman between us reached into her locker, took out her gym bag, opened it, and pulled out her pajamas. Now never in a million years would it have occurred to me to bring my PJs to the gym, I’m just not that smart, but I immediately recognized her act as brilliant, and her as carrying magic. And then she said calmly, “I’m not even going to turn on the lights. I’m just going to tuck myself in.” And, with that, she put on her PJs and slowly walked out into the world.

She’s everything I aspire to, I thought as I marveled at her revelatory act. For I’m not sure I’d ever born such close witness to someone who, with such confidence and grace, so clearly possessed the wisdom of when to rest.

  1. Stay Close to What Matters Most

By way of sharing stories of chores, ice cream, and swimming, I hope I’ve shared with you some of what I learned this summer, and much of what has shaped my life.

And, in close, I’d like to dedicate my words to all of us who are grappling with loss. I am achingly aware that we are not all here, that precious lives have been lost.

And I’d also like to dedicate my words to all of us who strive in everyday ways to create a world where tenderness is possible. Please continue to practice the ways the world could be, and to stay close to what matters most.

Thank you.

About the Speaker

Lisa Gail Collins, professor and chair of art, delivered the Convocation Address Wednesday, September 4, 2019. A member of the Vassar faculty since 1998, she teaches interdisciplinary courses in American art, social, and cultural history with an emphasis on African American lives; art and social change; creativity and everyday life; feminist thought and activism; and social and cultural movements in the United States.