My address to the Eta of Indiana Chapter at Valparaiso University of the Phi Betta Kappa Society on May 13, 2022.
A painting I made as an undergraduate that taught me several lessons.
Before I say anything else, I want to express my condolences to the entire campus community for the loss of the Art/Psychology building. Particularly for the Psychology majors in this group, and for all of the students and faculty that fondly remember learning in that building.
I fondly remember the painting class that I took there. Like you all, who are here in this room today because you are committed to learning, even in departments and fields that are not part of your declared major, I took a class far outside of my majors of Spanish and International Service when I took that oil painting class. I know that art helps me to express myself, and it is its own kind of therapy in times of stress and trauma.
One big lesson I learned in that class came when I was confronted with producing a large painting. I cannot profess to be an expert in art, and the thought of painting an entire scene was a bit overwhelming. But I remember my professor, Sarah Jantzi, teaching us that we don’t have to paint the entire painting all at once. First we make a framework, and put in light colors and dark colors, kind of like what an outline for a paper might be. Then we slowly add details.
In times of uncertainty, this lesson has served me well, and I commend it to you today. As you consider the loss of a campus building, or your own graduation and going out into the world, or facing senior year next year, remember that the entire picture doesn’t have to be clear today. It will become clear, as you continue to paint. As you continue to live.
You already know that, though, because you love to learn.
You all are here today because you exemplify the Phi Betta Kappa motto: “Love of learning is the guide of life.” As I look at your double and triple majors here in the program, I feel that I know you. You have a love of learning. You weren’t satisfied here at Valpo to study just one thing, check off the boxes and finish your major and move on. You have taken advantage of the time you have had at college. Many of you have explored areas outside of your majors, or majored in vastly differing fields, or if not majored, then minored, or dabbled, or explored.
Thinking about this love of learning reminds me of a quote I would share every semester with study abroad students coming to Costa Rica where I taught to learn about social justice and environmental sustainability. It comes from a beautiful little booked called Life is a Miracle, from the great farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry:
‘It is clearly bad for the sciences and the arts to be divided into “two cultures.” It is bad for scientists to be working without a sense of obligation to cultural tradition. It is bad for artists and scholars in the humanities to be working without a sense of obligation to the world beyond the artifacts of culture. It is bad for both of these cultures to be operating strictly according to “professional standards,” without local affection or community responsibility, much less any vision of an eternal order to which we are all subordinate and under obligation. It is even worse that we are actually confronting, not just “two cultures,” but a whole ragbag of disciplines and professions, each with its own jargon more or less unintelligible to the others, and all saying of the rest of the world, “That is not my field.”
-- Berry, Wendell. From Life is a Miracle. Counterpoint, Washington, DC. 2000. Pp 93-94.
Now I know that none of you in this room have looked at a topic and dismissed it because “it is not your field.” I encourage you to keep that curiosity as you now move to your senior year, or leave college and move on to new endeavors.
But that very prospect, leaving college, moving on, can feel a little intimidating for those of us who love learning. It can be tempting to stay in school forever, taking classes for years, because it is just so fun to get a new syllabus, new books, new classmates, a new guiding professor. Some of you may indeed continue on to various levels of graduate school, and indeed work in academia for your entire life. Others of you may not. But one day, there will no longer be a syllabus, and there will be something that you would like to learn for which there is no professor, no rubric. For you that may be parenting, or a new job, or moving to a new city, or encountering a specific problem in your life.
For those times, I wanted to share with you a few tools that I have learned, and which I used with students in Costa Rica who were carrying out internships in communities throughout Costa Rica and Nicaragua. These situations are often not clear, not easy, and can be confusing, frustrating, or even maddening, in addition to being inspirational and rewarding.
I have had a few times in my life that have been unclear and confusing, inspirational and rewarding. The first was when I started visiting Central America as part of my time as a student here at Valpo – first on the Spring Break service trip, and then for a semester while studying abroad. I eventually moved to Costa Rica and lived there for nearly a decade. I got married, earned two master’s degrees there, bought a house, had a baby, and learned a lot in my career. And then my – Costa Rican - husband was asked to come and work here, in Northwest Indiana. That was the second unclear and confusing time: coming back “home” to the Midwest, a place I thought I had, in effect, left behind. I now felt like a person with two homes, or maybe no home…
In those kinds moments I try to remember the four main tips for learning from your own life, when there is no syllabus. These are elements that I share whenever I teach.
Talk with people
I know that you already do all of these things. I don’t have time to go into them all today, But I want to share one example from the category of Observation. I want to tell you about a couple of basic tools you can use, and lessons that I have learned through one specific kind of observation: bird watching.
Now, I was a humanities person when I was a student here. I took a lot of theology classes, I majored in a modern language, and I was in Christ College. I didn’t take a lot of science courses, although I do now wonder why I didn’t also add a geography major to my list (ask me about that later, if you like).
But, if you spend any amount of time in Costa Rica, you will run into scientists. Professional ones, studying the rainforest or the coral reefs or agronomy or sociology. And amateur ones, particularly bird watchers. Like any scientist, bird watchers understand the power of observation. They know that by paying attention to what they see around themselves (particularly birds) they can gain insight into the world, and even into their own lives.
Birders know that in order to make the best observations, you need just a few tools: something to help you see better, and something to help you understand what you see.
As you may be aware (or maybe not), we are situated here in Valparaiso, Indiana, in between the Kankakee River (now mostly a canal here in Indiana, but formerly called the Everglades of the North), and the Indiana Dunes National Park (considered the 4th most biodiverse national park in the United States). One of the reasons for the immense biodiversity of this area is the arrival of migratory bird species every spring and fall. This very weekend is the Migratory Bird Festival at the Dunes, to which birdwatchers from all over the country flock to see the arrival of the birds that are flying north and stop to rest along the lakeshore.
When you take a few simple tools out to the trails around here, especially during this time of the year, you will find something astonishing. With just binoculars and a field guide, you can connect our entire continent of the Americas together. Binoculars help us to see better. Field guides help us to understand that which we are seeing.
About two weeks ago, I was hiking one of the trails, and saw a small, greyish bird flitting in the trees. I put up my binoculars and noticed that it wasn’t greyish, but actually black and white striped, with a small yellow patch on its back. When I looked for this description in my bird guide, I found that it was a yellow-rumped warbler, a migratory bird. This is exceedingly exciting, as migratory birds that we can see here live – get this, half of their lives in Central or South America, and half of their lives in North America. A creature with two homes. Like me (and a lot of other people). Standing there on the trail, I looked at the range map of the yellow-rumped warbler in the guide. Sure enough: winters in Central America. It could be that this little bird that I was seeing in Indiana spends its winter at my mother-in-law’s house in Costa Rica.
A yellow-rumped warbler.
In my struggle to sometimes understand my intentional and unintentional uprooting and moving across the continent, I have sometimes felt that I am leaving my home behind forever, losing a part of myself even as I gain another. But upon further reflection on migratory birds, I have come to realize that they find themselves simultaneously at home, and a newcomer, everywhere they go. North and South America are for them not so much two different homes, but two rooms within the same home.
Learning about migratory birds goes beyond the existential insights that illuminate my own internal struggles. Migratory birds of course teach us about habitat issues in other parts of the world, and how our own behavior impacts fellow creatures halfway around the planet. A bird that cannot breed here in our own backyard will not bring young back to Central America in the fall. A bird in Guatemala that doesn’t have habitat because of deforestation for full sun coffee or bananas that consumers demand here will not survive in order to find its way north in the spring.
So not only are we all connected, but all of our fields of inquiry are connected, as well – the philosophical, the environmental, the economic. Observing migratory birds can teach us that.
You know, Professor Sarah Jantzi once visited my apartment in Costa Rica. She was part of the spring break service trip to Central America, and one year all of the faculty on that program came over to my place for dinner. When she walked in she was shocked to see my painting hanging on the wall, and I was shocked to see my painting professor. And thus this painting taught me a second lesson – we often find learning coming back to us at unexpected times.
So, here is a summary of the lessons I want to share with you today: We can have more than one home, more than one piece of ourselves. In situations of uncertainty we can go back to the basics, make a framework, and fill in the details as we go. We can use simple tools to help ourselves see things better, and to understand what we see. What I have come to understand through a love of learning is that we are all connected.
Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.
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