posted May 3, 2009

2009 Commencement Address

"Haiku of the Day"

by Ellen Tanis Awad, director of student life and associate director of the Center for Faithful Leadership at Hope College

Hope College Commencement
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Holland Municipal Stadium

Thank you, Emily, for your kind words. Members of the Hope College Board of Trustees, President Bultman, Provost Boelkins, faculty and staff, alumni, parents, family members and friends, and most importantly, the Hope College graduating class of 2009; thank you.  I'm so grateful to be here celebrating with you today.

A few years ago, I was raking leaves and feeling frustrated by the quantity of my neighbor's wet, muddy leaves in my yard. You need to know that there are no trees in my yard at all. No trees at all. All of the leaves that I was raking were rogue leaves who had infiltrated and taken over my entire backyard. The task seemed a bit overwhelming.  What did I do about it?  I decided to write a haiku poem.  Here it is:

wet mud-covered leaves
overtaking my whole yard
stubborn filthy leaves

Let me give you a little more background. As I raked and festered with frustration that day, I was struck by the words of the 118th Psalm. "This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." To do so, however, I had to choose to refocus my negative energy. I chose to go back to something I learned in third grade, haiku poetry. Haiku poetry requires counting the syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern and it's only three lines long. So, as I raked, I composed a poem about the leaves. Choosing to refocus my mind alleviated my anger toward the multitude of rogue leaves in my yard, and that day started a new hobby for me of composing haiku poetry. It has become a way for me to change my perspective on a situation as well as to celebrate loved ones on special occasions. To rejoice and be glad in each moment God gives us.

Today, I thought it fitting to write haiku poems for you to celebrate you and your Hope experience. However, to do this with authenticity, I needed to get a better grasp on your perspective of your Hope years. This past semester, I emailed many among you and collected literally pages of rich words from you describing your time at Hope College. The words you emailed to me reflect the depth and the breadth of the Hope experience. The way the email responses came back to me was revealing as well. The first email response came back to me four minutes after I sent the original request. Thanks, Kolleen. Some of you wondered why I needed the words. Most of you made a comment about hoping your list was of help to me and that you would be happy to do more if needed. This is why working with you for the past four years has been such a joy. You want to contribute! Now, unfortunately, I was unable to use RJ's love for Kletz tuna melts in a poem, but I did delight in creating more haiku poems than I can share here today.

Before we get to the first of your poems, I want you to think back.  Take a moment to think about the person you were when you set foot on campus for Orientation in 2005. Who were you when you met your roommate for the first time? Who were you as a first-year student running around the Dow Center at Play Fair when you began your journey here? Who were you on the first day of class, the first day of practice, the first day of figuring out the scramble system at Phelps?

Now, let's jump ahead to where you are today, and listen to your words in the first haiku written for this day:

transforming journey
challenging, full of learning
exponential growth

Let's unpack your words from this haiku. Transforming journey. You have been transformed by late-night discussions with your roommates, accomplishing a goal in your Greek organization or student group, and participating in service projects or a spring break mission trip. Challenging, full of learning. You have been challenged during classroom discussions, broadened your knowledge while conducting research, and stepped outside of your comfort zone while studying abroad. Exponential growth. Your exponential growth was a result of your investing in your coursework, involving yourself in the Hope community and giving back through leading in New Student Orientation or as a captain of your team.

Now, hear your words in the next haiku of the day:

best years of my life
defining, spirit filling
prepared to move on

The best years of your life came out of the zest with which you approached the Nykerk Cup Competition or the Pull, the passion with which you developed friendships, and the excellence with which you performed on the stage, on the court or on the field. Defining, spirit filling. These years have been defining for you. It has been a time when you had to make your own decisions, were faced with the reality of life-altering circumstances, and had to listen quietly to discern your calling in life. They have been spirit filling years for you as you joined in communion at the Gathering, sang songs of praise with Gospel Choir, or prayed together in your small group. Prepared to move on. You are prepared to move on. These are your words. You are prepared to move on. Believe it.

Your Hope College experience has laid a foundation for you to go out to make a difference in the world.  This is not cliché. You are not the same kid you were at Play Fair. You have mastered the scramble system. Your first college roommate may now be one of your closest friends. You have moved from figuring out what liberal arts means in your First-Year Seminar to being able to articulate your philosophy of life in your Senior Sem. Your journey here at Hope has transformed and defined you. You have become the person you are today as a result. You are a young adult prepared for the next part of your journey.

You have given much to the Hope community and we have been transformed by your time with us. Every year, I hate to see the seniors leave, and this year is no different. You have changed our community with your presence among us. In honor of you, I have written a haiku poem that springs out of priest, theologian, and author Henri Nouwen's writing in Bread for the Journey. Here it is:

let your center speak
courageous, deeply rooted
keeping hope alive

Let's listen to that again:

let your center speak
courageous, deeply rooted
keeping hope alive

These are thick, rich words that mean much. A few weekends ago, I found myself dwelling on the words in the haiku poem. Then, as I was sitting in a pew at my church on Youth Sunday, a particular Hope College senior was being recognized for her service and leadership with the middle school youth over the past four years.  Immediately, the words of the haiku sprung back into my mind. While at Hope, she had let the choices she made in life represent her center or the core of who she is. Her decisions came from her heart - her authentic self. She was courageous. Actually, I think anyone who dedicates any kind of time to youth going through puberty is pretty brave, but her courageousness allowed her passion and choices to guide her in a life that is deeply rooted, not superficial.  She let her center speak through a life deeply rooted in faith, calling, leadership and service. I have no doubt she will continue to live in such a way, keeping hope alive.

The last line of the poem, keeping hope alive, brings me back to that day of raking leaves. It seems to me that "raking leaves" is really what makes up about ninety percent of life. And, each day, you have the choice to rejoice in the day the Lord has made while you rake through the paperwork on your desk, clean up the muckiness of a strained relationship, or bring order to the chaos of your wind-blown schedule.   Here's what I want you to remember: rake leaves with authenticity.  Authenticity grows out of all that you are. It is living into your faith daily, not just for an hour on Sundays. It is through being a reliable friend each day, not just when it fits in your schedule. It is through acting on your convictions when faced with adversity. It is through living an authentic life - in each and every moment - that you will be able to keep hope alive.

As you look ahead, think about how you will choose to be in each moment. You have the ability to choose how you will greet each day and each person or situation you encounter.

let your center speak
courageous, deeply rooted
keeping hope alive

Thank you.