Selected by the Class of 2013 to receive the Charles Bassett Senior Class Teaching Award, Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris told seniors in their “Last Lecture” May 20, “Philosophers and other schmoes have tried for two thousand years to define the good life, and it has something to do with a balanced life—a life of service, doing good for other people.”
He reminded students of the fifth precept in the Colby Plan: “To understand and reflect on one’s values.” And he used poems to build a case for mindfulness, paying attention, being aware of how sweet life is.
Poetry, he said, “slows you down. It is mindfulness incarnate. It is enlightened being.” He recited parts of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” his own inspiration for “liberation of the mind and body, so you can live a life for others and do good.”
“‘You shall no longer take things at second or third-hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,’” he said, quoting Whitman. “This is especially for the Class of 2013,” he added, continuing: “‘You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me. You shall listen to all sides and filter them for yourself.'”
Harris invoked “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, “Glanmore Sonnet No. 1” by Seamus Heaney, “America” by Tony Hoagland, and “Gay” by Marie Howe.
After reciting the Howe poem, about the death of her brother at a young age, “All of us have a stopwatch,” Harris said, “and it’s ticking down. And one day you get a little tap on the shoulder, and all of a sudden you can hear it ticking. And when that happens, then you know. Then you’re shocked at how sweet life is—this thing you’ve been taking for granted. This.
“So you’re about to have your own little death,” he told seniors. “You’re about to leave Colby College. And I know you’ve been noticing over the course of the year that it’s gotten sweeter, that the nature of your relationships become more poignant and important to you.” He advised them to acknowledge people they’ve noticed and express appreciation.
Harris recited “The Swan” by Mary Oliver, which ends: “‘And did you feel it in your heart, how it pertained to everything? And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for? And have you changed your life?’
“Or,” he continued, “as she says somewhere else, ‘What will you do with this one wild precious life?’
“Well, luckily you don’t have to answer those questions right now. You just have to live them. And keep the faith that those questions will be answered right out of here,” he said, covering his heart. “Keep the faith that you’ll run into a detour, and another detour, and those detours will bring out of you the wisdom that you need to live this life—the real good life. Flexible, curious, open, compassionate, equanimous beings. It’s lift-off time. Thank you and goodbye.”