“Life is a Whole”

Richard Rodriguez to the 2003 graduating class of Kenyon College:

When I was in graduate school in London there was a man at a dinner party who is 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 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 ‘mister’ (I will not tell you his name) ‘mister, 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 past 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 little woggie is of no concern to me. But to do that to yourself, to turn against yourself. The middle aged man turning against the man 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 of our lives to turn against ourselves.

When we become middle aged, it is the temptation of the middle aged 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 someday you will be in wheelchairs. It is the temptation of all of us to disbelieve that life is a whole, W-H-O-L-E. How’s that for an Oprah idea? I tell you, you are already the 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.  

My mother and father recently died, my father died first and then my mother inconsolable in his absence died at Christmas. It is one of the things middle aged people talk about, how are your parents, are they still alive. I spent most of January and February in their house on 29th Avenue, a more prosaic street you cannot imagine than 29th Avenue in San Francisco. Afternoons putting into boxes, dishes, photographs, clothes, clothes are the hardest thing to put away. And I found among my mother’s papers, my paper, a paper I had written when I was a high school senior and I opened it and began to read. And it was wonderful. It was wonderful, and it was better than anything that I could achieve now. It was brilliant, it was fresh, it was daring, it risked. It took chances with language. And I think to myself I want to be eighteen again. I want to write like an eighteen year old.  

Dear Oprah.        

Life is a whole. There are things that the young know that the middle aged are envious to remember. There are things that the old know that they learned from childhood.  

Listen to the whole speech here.  (Thanks to Devon Hearn for providing the transcription).

2 thoughts on ““Life is a Whole”

  1. Thanks for sharing this piece. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I first read it a few days ago. It seems like people people wisdom automatically comes with age, and it’s true that I know myself better now that I am older, but there is also a temptation to forget what youth and energy felt like like, and to spite my choices based on the person I am and not the person I was. Thanks again for bringing my attention to this thoughtful post.

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  2. Richard .Rodriguez appears go be saying that growth in wisdom does not normally come with age. The writer of Proverbs had a different view on those who age with godliness.. Proverbs 16:31 states, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.”

    I don’t know if Rodriguez thinks more like Rousseau than Solomon. It sounds like it.

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