2010 Gutenberg College Commencement Address: Wild Around the Edges

by Linford Detweiler


Each year, the Gutenberg College graduating class selects a speaker for their commencement ceremony. The Class of 2010 chose Linford Detweiler from the band Over the Rhine. He spoke at the commencement ceremony on June 11, 2010.

* * *

I thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

—A poem by e.e. cummings

 

Dear college graduate,

Hello. How are you? How are you feeling?

I’m writing to you from our porch swing on the little farm in Southern Ohio we call home. It is an early morning in June, the sun’s birthday. The dogs and I are up, the coffee has been brewed strong and dark and goes down easy, and now as the sun is born again, and the songbirds of Ohio begin to sing, I begin to write.

When my wife and I found this little ramshackle farm five years ago and began taming it, fixing up the old, pre-Civil War house, cutting paths, putting in flower beds and a vegetable garden, my father had some advice for us: he said that we should leave the edges wild. Let the songbirds have thorny hidden places for their wild music.

Whenever I sit down to write a song, or write anything, I try to follow that same advice: leave the edges wild.

I have never written a commencement address before. This is my first, so I’m not sure yet what I will tell you. I should probably mention that I was surprised, but secretly delighted, to get your invitation. Thank you so much for the gift of your curiosity and confidence that I might have something to say. I’m curious too.

My wife and I only have one friend who has delivered multiple commencement addresses, the artist and illustrator and prolific book man, Barry Moser. (In case you’re not familiar with Barry’s work, for starters, he was the only artist in the 20th century to profusely illustrate that weighty, conflicted masterpiece known as the King James Bible. But over the years, he’s also tackled Moby Dick, and countless other heavy weights.) So yes, I asked our friend Barry, otherwise known affectionately as Bubba—we call him Bubba—for some pointers regarding commencement addresses, and Bubba gave me this advice:

“Keep it short.”

My wife Karin had some advice of her own:

“Remember your inner comic: Unfortunately, she’ll be sitting in the audience and won’t be able to help you.”

Karin and I argue over which one of us in our relationship was blessed with the sense of humor. Karin always wins that argument.

Karin wants me to get up here and tell one good blonde joke, and she’ll go home happy.

So yes, I got advice from a guy named Bubba and a blonde, and here we go.

(Come to think of it, almost sounds like a joke: Bubba, a blonde, and a commencement speaker walk into a bar…)

I think I will begin with a few stories.

Someone said some of the most beautiful words in the English language are “Tell me a story.”

If you have seen Over the Rhine in concert, you’ve probably already heard a few of these. I return to my own story over and over again, and turn the details over and over like smooth stones, looking to uncover new significance, wondering how I continue to be shaped by those who have gone before me, and by my own earliest memories.

I will begin by telling you that just last week I buried my Uncle Rudy, laid my father’s last remaining brother, 86 years old, to rest. I will tell you that my father and his brother Rudy grew up on an Amish farm in Delaware, no electricity, no car, no phone, no radio, farming with horses, the smell of kerosene lamp oil softly permeating the late evening rooms of the house as warm light reflected off of hardwood floors. And of course there were the neat hand stitched quilts, the Amish children sleeping under the aesthetic equivalent of a painter’s canvas.

But my father and Rudy were unusual children.

My father, John Detweiler, as a young boy sketched faces with a piece of charcoal along the entire length of his family’s white-washed barn, and the Amish neighbors would gather ’round, lean in, and point at his drawings, and recognize themselves.

There were no musical instruments allowed in the home because of the church rules, except for the harmonica. Harmonicas were fine. We’re still not sure why this exception was made—something to do with theology and portability—if it can fit in your shirt pocket, how bad can it really be?! Both my father and his brother loved to play their harmonicas and continued to play right up until the end of their lives.

But Uncle Rudy wanted more. Apparently he loved music. Maybe he, too, was looking to keep the edges wild. Rudy, as a boy, eventually hid a secret guitar in the haymow and would slip out after dark to practice his guitar in the barn. And then one day, one of his brothers, not knowing that an acoustic guitar lay buried in the hay, accidentally ran a pitchfork through it, and that unfortunate bit of discovery was the end of the guitar.

But not too many months before he died, Rudy told me he had a back-up plan: He had also hidden an accordion under the horse’s manger.

“Uncle Rudy,” I said, “An accordion?!”

And so I think about forbidden music.

Almost makes one think of that other family that hid something valued in a horse’s manger in a barn. I had never thought of the Christ child as a forbidden song.

My mother, Ruth, also grew up on an Amish farm and she wanted a piano when she was a young girl. But pianos were not allowed in the house, so one of my mother’s schoolteachers helped her cut out a cardboard keyboard at school and color in the black and white keys and cut the keys with a scissors. My mother brought the cardboard keyboard home with her and played the cardboard keyboard in her bedroom and heard the music that was only inside of her:

Forbidden music.

When my father turned 21, my grandfather offered him the family farm, if he would only stay and farm it: 200 pristine acres in Dover, Delaware, that would have made my father a wealthy man. My father said the only thing he knew for sure when he was 21 was that he wasn’t a farmer. So he gracefully bowed out, left the Amish community, and set out into the world.

He eventually met my mother, spied her across a crowded church basement during a hymn sing, they were married, had six of us children. My father, restless, farmless, still exploring his options, brought home a Sylvania record player and began buying records—Mahalia Jackson, Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, early Eddy Arnold, Southern Gospel Quartets. He would play these records in the evening, and even after we children were in bed, the music would drift up the stairs as we fell asleep.

My father also bought a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and loved to go out at night and point the hand-held microphone toward the edge of a swamp or along the edge of a back road next to a woods—capturing the insect orchestras, the amorous belching of bullfrogs, a great-horned owl, the wild edges of things—what my father called the best music in the world. He would play his reel-to-reel recordings for us children at breakfast as we leaned over our hot cereal. I grew up wondering about the reel-to-reel recordings I would make someday. What would they sound like?

My own first memory is the sound of a trumpet at a camp meeting revival. I remember the tent, the strings of bare lightbulbs, my sister Grace’s braids. Maybe it’s all part of disappearing America, what used to happen when the revival came to town, but I remember that trumpet, that bright brass bell, and I think I formed my first real thought sitting there on my mother’s lap: I was in the audience and the music was coming from up front, from a small wooden stage. I wasn’t okay with that: I wanted to be where the sound was coming from.

I also remember the first time I heard a piano. My mother visited a friend who had adopted a son a few years older than I, and there he was sitting at a small wooden house with pedals like a car and elephant ivory keys, and sound was coming out of the small wooden house as if God himself was performing a miracle in front of my eyes; and although I could barely walk, I got myself over to the side of the bench and got my hands up on the keyboard to slap it and help the miracle come out. The adopted boy gave me a shove (rightfully so), and I took a seat on the floor. I say now I learned at an early age that music is a cutthroat business—he was up, and I was down, and he wanted to keep it that way.

When my father discovered my love of music, he brought home an upright piano, right into the house, and I spent a lot of time there as a boy, figuring out things that I didn’t have words for.

I began playing hymns that we were growing up with in Church, the hymns with the beautiful names like, “Softly and Tenderly,” “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning,” “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.” My sister Grace, who was four years older than I was and infinitely wiser, explained to me that I could play the gospel music we were learning in church, or I could eventually become what was known as a concert pianist, which meant I would play music for silent movies. Ooh, a concert pianist. Silent movies. I liked the sound of that. Much later I discovered those silent movies were inside of me. They were called songs.

And my sister Grace was so concerned that my Amish Grandmother was coming to visit, along with my Amish relatives, and here would be a forbidden upright piano plain as the light of day in our living room. Grace eyed the piano carefully and said, “Linford, if I drape it carefully with a blanket, she might think it’s a furnace.”

My father eventually encouraged me to study music, and I found myself at a little Quaker liberal arts college in Canton, Ohio, near where I was born. I met my wife, Karin, at that little college, and the first time we performed together a friend of mine came up to me afterwards and said, “Linford, what happened? Did you feel that? The room changed—I felt something on my skin.” Karin and I didn’t know what had happened, and it was just a little room in Ohio, but sometimes when you put two musicians together there is a little chemical reaction of some kind and people feel that chemistry on their skin. Yes, I believe that.

Karin and I eventually started our own songwriting and recording adventure called Over the Rhine, and we’ve been trying to change rooms around the world ever since. We’ve been trying to keep the edges wild. Trying to help people feel something.

Why am I telling you these stories?

Is it because I’ve come to think of my own life story as an amazing gift and hope you will too?

Is it because we would do well to remember that we are all part of a bigger story, a story much bigger than just ourselves alone?

Is it because I’m wondering aloud how to make my life a true story?

Is it because I’m wondering about the story that you will write with your life?

Here’s why—let me tell you just one more:

Although my father remained farmless, curious, restless for much of his life, he did spend a good number of years as a minister in a little white wooden Protestant church next to the railroad tracks in a tiny coalmining town in southeast Ohio.

On Sunday mornings during my father’s sermon, we would feel a distant low rumble, the hymnals would begin to tremble in their racks on the backs of the pews, the crossing bell would begin to clang, and the whistle would blow and the coal train would rumble by all iron-clad and steel-hearted to shake our Sunday faith, off to stoke the fires of the world. When that happened during the sermon, my father would take a little break.

But what I most remember about that little church was Wednesday night prayer meeting. After we sang a few hymns, the hymns with the beautiful names, someone would go to the front of the sanctuary with a little spiral bound notebook and ball point pen, and ask if there were any prayer requests. Edith was going into the hospital for a checkup and would appreciate prayer… Mike had a difficult chemistry test coming up on Friday… Somebody mentioned there had been an accident at the coalmine, and we should keep the families of the victims in mind…

But occasionally, someone would raise his hand and say, I have an unspoken request. An unspoken request? That captured my imagination as a boy and does still.

What are these prayers that we do not verbalize, or cannot find words for? What are these prayers that are too intimate to express?

Unspoken requests.

I have come to see the stories we write with our lives, I have come to see every breath we breathe, I have come to see all my life as an unspoken request. I think the guitar hidden in the hay, the drawings on the side of the barn, a boy at an upright piano, a girl singing and making someone feel something on the skin—I think it might all be prayer.

Life, as unspoken request.

So yes, as a writer, I review and revisit the story of my life, and the story of my family over and over.

In the Christian tradition, we believe that when we go to Scripture, we are reviewing and revisiting God’s story, and we try to be open to how God’s story might shape us and include even us.

And I’m thinking now of the story of God coming to the young King Solomon at the beginning of a new chapter. The picture we are given in effect is this: God walks in the room and addresses Solomon and says, “I loved your father; I want to give you a gift. What is the desire of your heart? What can I give you?” Well, Solomon, in a moment of inspiration, asks for wisdom. And God says, “Wow. Okay. And because you didn’t ask for wealth or a long life (the usual suspects), I’ll toss those in as a bonus.”

Here’s the thing, dear graduate: you are graduating from Gutenberg College, you’ve had a unique experience that many curious, bright people would look upon with envy. You’ve seen this chapter of your story through to a good ending. It’s time for a little celebration. It’s a significant mile-marker in your life story.

As you move now into writing the chapters that will follow, I invite you to ask yourself, What is a prayer worth praying with my life? What would I like my unspoken request to look like?

Is it helpful to wonder aloud together for just a moment: What if, like Solomon, you were alone in a room in the next few days and God walked in and said, “Well done. I think of you as my son; I think of you as my daughter; I think of you as part of my amazing extended family, part of my own still-unfolding story. I treasure you. I want to give you what you long for. I want to give you your heart’s desire. What can I give you?”

What will you ask for? What will you say?

What if God is in the habit of saying yes more often than no?

Wisdom. What does that look like in June 2010 I wonder?

What is a prayer worth praying with your life?

I remember the writer and poet Paul Mariani, who now teaches at Boston College, saying that when he was young, he felt a desire, a longing to write, needed to write, but he was the son of an uneducated laborer, and he didn’t know where or how to begin. He asked God, “Is there any way that you could help me be a writer?”

Is that a prayer worth praying?

God, I think I might have a gift, but I don’t know where to begin. I long to use my gift, however great or modest, I’m willing, Can you help me?

I think it’s a prayer worth praying.

Frederick Buechner wrote, regarding vocation: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Forbidden music? No. Let that music be heard.

And so graduates, I leave you with this:

May you choose the prayer you will pray with your life with courage, with hope, with curiosity and much laughter. May you see your life as an unfolding story. May the edges of your life stay at least a little wild, leaving room for some untamed music. And may all your unspoken requests be beautiful.

Thank you.

Copyright June 2010 by Linford Detweiler.

Linford Detweiler