30th Reunion – Memorial Service — Reflections by Victor Kazanjian ‘81

Spirit of Life who formed us,
Be with us now.
Come, breathe with us.
Center us in stillness.
Make us motionless in that deep space
where soul gives guidance to spirit.
Warm us.
Quiet us.
Reknit us into our intimate weaving
with you and with one another.

Spirit of Love,
Be here in our sadness as you are in our joy.
Help us to move beyond the shadowy places,
into the light of possibilities
which you carved upon our souls
when we were but dreams in your being.

You are the ancient heart of our becoming alive.
You are the substance which binds us to one another
through our laughter and our tears.
Be here now, in and among us, as we remember…
(Prayer by Robin Izer)

It is a wondrous thing to look out across this sea of faces and catch a glimpse of the young women and men we once were. Certainly those young Harvard and Radcliffe college students live and dwell in us, and come alive from time to time, mostly these days to me through emails that circulate wildly under the heading, “Do you remember when…?” Or “Harvard Football Class of 1981.” These emails most often recall tales of youthful adventures remembered in incredible and sometimes regrettable detail. But the memories of our younger days call forth that time when we were coming of age together, and awkwardly figuring out how we would construct our relationships with one another.

And this morning, like last night in the field house and under a leaky tent by the stadium, it is a pleasure and a joy to gaze at the wizened middle-aged ones we have become in our somewhat less agile bodies that we now inhabit…, a joy to see us gathered once again, embodying the reality of this earthly existence in which our aging is part of the great mystery of the passing of time.

Look, writes Mary Oliver as Kate read
Look,
the trees are turning their own bodies
into pillars of light,
giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…
(from In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver)

These reunion gatherings are in part a kind of life clock in which we see time moving forward not only in the leaves as they turn, but in each other’s faces and lives. At times it’s a bit shocking, like those moments when I look into the mirror and wonder who that is staring back at me that looks so very much like my father; or when I meet the children of classmates like I did last night and realize that they are now where we were then… that they are Harvard students! How is that possible?
But there are other times, when the passing of years is a welcome gift. When I get to hear the stories from classmates of the moments of meaning in their lives: Like the beauty I see in the face of a father as he speaks in admiration of his daughter’s life; or the love I feel in the story of a parent gazing at a sleeping child; or the pain and triumph so evident in a recounting of wading through the deep waters of life’s struggles; or when I thank God that I do not have to be the 20 year old any more, but can enjoy the middle passage of life’s journey in which my mistakes, imperfections and limitations are finally just a part of who I am.

And with this passing of time, with our moving further along the pathway of our lifetimes, comes the painful and yet natural part of our being animate creatures, the reality of the fragility of our existence, and the loss of those with whom we travelled a while along the pathways of this campus, the loss of those classmates in whose memories we gather today.

When we first gathered 30 years ago to begin our Harvard journey some of our classmates had experienced loss in their life already; the loss of parents or grandparents, siblings, friends. And then in the years that have followed our commencement there have been more losses among us, in our lives and the lives of those close to us, and too, too many losses of our beloved classmates.

And today we remember them, as Billy read,

We remember them
At the rising of the sun and at its going down…
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer…
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn…
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter…
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring…
We remember them
(Adapted by Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn from a poem by Rabbi Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)

We remember them and we recall their presence in our lives. And in a moment Robin and David will do just that as they call out their names, and in doing so, evoke memories of them, bringing their faces before us. And when we do this, as my former parishioners in the South Bronx would shout, we shout, “Presente. Presente.” They are here. They are present with us.

This is not an easy thing to do, to call up these lost loved ones; Emeka, my roommate, Big Jim Davis my childhood friend, Ann, Anita, Marko, and so many more. Each has their own story of living and dying; their own circle of familiars who grieve their loss, and celebrate their lives. And all are a part of us, part of our journey. It’s not an easy thing to do to really remember them, because to do so breaks our hearts. In remembering them, we feel their aliveness and at the same time the loss of our relationship with them, and we ache.

So why do it then?
Why put ourselves through it?
Why open that door to the pools of grief that lie within?

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,
seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere.
(from A Noiseless Spider by Walt Whitman)

With Whitman’s words Caroline reminds us that such is the price for having lived and loved, for having formed friendship, for having cast the thread of ourselves and souls into the air and finding it connected to another.

Perhaps it is not our hearts that are breaking after all in these moments, but rather what we feel is the intense feeling, the keen awareness that our hearts broke open long ago when we first allowed ourselves to love, to become part of each other’s lives. We are, in the words of Quaker teacher Parker Palmer, “a broken-hearted people,” hearts broken open not by tragedy, but by our love for each other and our grief when we part.

love what is mortal;
hold it against your bones
knowing your own life depends on it;
(from In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver)

When I was a senior at Harvard, my father was diagnosed with cancer. Some of you remember that. I’ve spoken about it here before. He was to live only a short 5 more years, passing from this earth at what seems now like the incredibly young age of 56. And now as I have a son who is a senior in college, my son Jeremy, and as I am the age that my father was when he fell ill, I find myself reliving the sadness of those days in 1981, and my heart breaks open. But what stands out for me about that time, apart from the grief and the ever-deepening realization of my own mortality, what stands out is the presence of friends; friends who held the space beside me and around me; friends who would not let me fall too far, not let my broken heart shatter; friends whose quiet presence rather than particularly profound words sustained me through it all.

love what is mortal;
hold it against your bones
knowing your own life depends on it;

The truth of our human existence, I think, is that life and death are sisters. One cannot have one without eventually the other. To live fully necessitates joy and suffering, success and struggle, life and death. But when we are isolated, when we loose connection from those whose hearts we share, the suffering and the struggle cast a very long shadow on our lives, and we may find ourselves “wandering for a time through that country dimly seen by the uncertain light of thought and feeling, in which death is undiscovered territory, a land without report.” (from Gates of Remembrance) Those are difficult times, and many of us have lived them.

But when we gather, when we rekindle connection with each other, when we share the stories not only of old memories but also of that which is meaningful in our lives right now, (like a group of old and wet football players and friends did last night,) when we speak to one another from the heart, then the dawn breaks on that shadowy night, then the light begins to dispel the darkness, then hope can work its transforming magic on our despair, then life envelops death. It does not make the sadness disappear nor the pain less painful, but rather our presence with each other, and our communal remembering creates a loving context in which we can both feel our sadness and also our aliveness.

At Wellesley College I have the privilege of gathering each June with reuning alumnae at their 60th reunion for their memorial service. It is always a remarkable and deeply moving experience bearing witness to women in there eighth decade of life, women who have known one another since their teenage years. Now 60 years later having experienced much loss including for many the loss of their life partners, they come together at the place where they began, a place where they first met to reflect on the arc of their lives. They come together as seasoned travelers through the peaks and valleys of their experiences. They come together to reconnect and rekindle their relationships, and for some to begin new friendships. Names are read. Candles are lit. Stories are told. Laughter and tears abound. And I am always left with a sense of wonder at the enduring power of their friendships, and of their connection to the place where these friendships first formed.
As so today on the halfway mark to our 60th reunion, we make our stand together, here, back on this campus where we once lived and learned so long ago. We, who came from so many different places across the country and world, we, who represent so many different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, we gather as sisters and brothers bound together by our common college experience and today by a shared love for those no longer with us in physical form, but who live in us through our memories of them. For as we remember them, we become bearers of their spirits, bearers of the truth of their aliveness, of their story, of the knowledge that they lived as part of our class, our community, as part of us. And that is no small thing. That is no small thing indeed.

But there is more I think that is possible for us on this day; more than just the remembering as important as that is. For in remembering our classmates, if we also allow our hearts to break open, we invite in the possibility of honoring their memory by deepening the quality of our lives. In the face of the reality of death, life quickens. The preciousness of every day seems more pronounced, and this presents an opportunity for us to do more than remember; an opportunity for us to examine our own lives; to ask ourselves, what is it that would make our days on this planet, however many they may be, more meaningful? To ask ourselves, where is that one small thing in our life that needs our attention? Perhaps it is exploring a place in our lives where healing is necessary. Perhaps there are things that we need and want say to our partners, our parents, our children or our friends but have not yet quite found the words. Perhaps there are ways that we might be gentler with ourselves, or those around us. Perhaps we just need to be reminded of the beautiful person that we are, even with our imperfections. Perhaps we just need to let the world welcome us home. The possibilities abound in this gathering of friends in body and spirit.

Thank you for bringing yourselves to this reunion, that we might remember again the meaning of our time lived in this place, remember tenderly those who travelled with us along the way, share with each other some of the struggles and joys of more recent parts of our journey, and inspire one another to lives lived with hearts broken open by the power and possibilities of love and friendship.

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