“Life is made up of marble and mud.”
It is the season of graduations. Women and men, boys and girls will take their turn this month crossing stages in flowing gowns and teetering mortarboards to shake the hands of their academic mentors, receive their sheepskins and march into their own particular futures. I have seen the proud documentation of several graduations on Face Book already this season, and I look forward to two events for our family in the upcoming weeks as my niece and nephew both complete their high school years and participate in their commencement exercises.
I don’t know if schools produce yearbooks anymore. In the digital age, where letters have given way to emails, photo albums to computer files of pictures, and hard-covered books to their electronic cousins found on Kindles or tablets, it’s hard to know if the high school yearbook still exists. My hunch is that it does- because of the power that is has for us in its sentimental capacity. That one book – the high school yearbook- carries the lives of an entire group of people- a high school class- at their most poignant, their coming of age. High school year books give testimony to the critical passage from childhood to young adulthood and display in all their glory and awkwardness, the finding of self. Or, at least, they display the beginning of the shape of the adult as exercised in the limits of the high school construct.
I remember being quite diligent about the choices that I made in selecting my own high school yearbook persona. It was my chance to create a lasting statement about who I was, at age 17, and how I wanted to be remembered, years later, by my classmates. I was a bit of a rebel. It was the mid- 1970s. The chaotic, revolutionary 1960s had faded, some, and in my mind and the mind of my friends, the 1960s had been transformed to a romanticized era of freedom, passion and hippie-dom. Most of my close friends were academic and musical marvels, achieving hand-over-fist in scholarly pursuits and attaining accolades in chamber groups and select choirs. I was a step away from all of that and found my place playing a supporting role to the cast of our classes’ brightest and best and a home in the semi-hippie persona, or Hippie re-dux or Hippie 2.0. In the affluent, white, suburban, colonial New England town where I lived, the Hippie 2.0 persona that I achieved was expressed in a comical mix of Earth Shoes and patchouli; Fair Isle sweaters and bell bottomed corduroys; the soundtracks of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Eric Clapton; and lemon verbena tea taken with the occasional clove cigarette. Oh, it’s painful to even write it down, now.
For the yearbook, I insisted on my photograph being taken out on the soccer bleachers. Many of my classmates went the traditional route using formal portraits taken in a studio, but back in 1976, Hippies 2.0 insisted on “candids” taken en plein aire. We loved soccer (and the adorable English teacher who coached the boys soccer team) and by claiming a preference for soccer we imagined that we were making an anti-establishmentarian statement against its popular sports rival, Football. (I have the distinction of never attending a high school football game. Not one.)
And so, there I was, on the soccer field bleachers, in my grey crew neck sweater with jeans that were slightly frayed at the hem, all too aware of the baby fat that I still carried around, and my stick straight hair. Oh, what a self-conscious age.
The quote that each of us chose for our yearbook was as important as the photograph. I found the wisdom of Nathaniel Hawthorne to work for me, in his words, “Life is made up of marble and mud.” I confess to not actually lifting this quote from a revelatory reading of one of Hawthorne’s novels- honestly, other than the required reading of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables and a 10th grade field trip to his home in Salem, MA I can’t say that I was particularity attached to Nathaniel Hawthorne or his works, but I loved that image: marble and mud. I believe it came to me one night as I poured over a copy of Bartlett’s Famous Quotations, with the yearbook deadline looming. The cool, elegant purity of creamy white marble… against the gritty, mineral-y, mess of mud. It seemed to reflect my life-view at the age of 17. And so, I claimed it: “Life is made up of marble and mud.”
When I think of all of this now, I feel a certain nostalgia for those years…. and a gratitude for having 40 years’ distance between then and now. Coming of age is rarely graceful, often painful and can yield a few nicks and bruises.
My prayer, in this season of graduations, is that each individual who steps across the stage knows that they are holy and blessed and loved. Because, life is, indeed, made up of marble and mud. There is great beauty and grace to behold in this world, and plenty of messy bits to work through- it’s all part of becoming. God delights in us- in all of our ages and stages- may we always have that touchstone of knowing our own blessedness and of God’s deep and abiding love for us.
Share your high school quote with us. Can you remember?