Richard Rodriguez on the Wholeness of Life

Richard Rodriguez to the Class of 2003 at Kenyon College:

There was so much I didn’t know at 21. But maybe most of all what I didn’t know when I was 21 was how much I did know. Because when I became a writer in my 30s, I began writing about the years of my schooling. The first sentence of the first book I ever wrote was about going to a classroom, a Spanish-speaking child in Sacramento, California, and about to confront a group of Irish nuns. I have been writing about education ever since. I have been writing about the years of grammar school, high school, adolescence, young adulthood. I have been looking through those memories of school because somewhere within those memories is some part of the man I became.

…When I was in graduate school in London there was a man at a dinner party who was the great hero of my reading life. I had read one of his books when I was your age and there he was, forty years later, standing across the room. He was of that age in England when hair begins to explode out of all of his openings. Hair was coming out of his ears and out of his eyes and out of his nose. But I went up to him bravely and I said “Mr (I will not tell you his name) you cannot know how important your book was to me in college, it changed my life.” And he looked down at me and said, “not a day has passed when I have not regretted writing that book.” And I thought to myself, “You Bastard.” To do that to me–to say “that this book that was so important to you… is of no concern to me”–[is one thing]. But to do that to yourself, to turn against yourself–the middle aged man turning against the man he was when he was younger–is a betrayal of the deepest sort.

It is the temptation of every generation, of every season, of every year, of every decade in our lives to turn against ourselves. When we become middle age it is the temptation of the middle age to say how much we did not know when we were young. It is the temptation of the young not to believe that they will ever be old. Not to believe that your hands will turn into claws from arthritis and that some day you will be in wheelchairs. It is the temptation of all us not to believe that life is a whole…

I tell you that you are already father or mother to the men and women that you are going to become in ten, twenty, thirty years. You are already creating that older person. That older person lives with the consequences of what you do or don’t do. What you know or don’t know, now that you are 21.

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