I’ve been meaning to write this column for years.
The inspiration will invariably come some warm May evening as I am standing in the lobby of a downtown hotel and, suddenly, a limousine sweeps up and disgorges these boys in crisp tuxes, these girls in sparkly dresses, T-shirts and hoodies abandoned for the night, looking handsome and gorgeous and startlingly adult as they seek the ballroom where the prom is being held.
Or the inspiration will arrive on a June afternoon as I am passing a chapel where some poor photographer is wrangling children, flower girls and ring bearers much more interested in frolicking on the grass than in posing for posterity, as groomsmen and bridesmaids arrange themselves just so while the newly minted Mr. and Mrs. beam, having just vowed to face together whatever comes.
Or, the inspiration will show up as it did a few days ago when I served as commencement speaker for Willamette University. The stately strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang in the damp Oregon air, then bagpipers played and cheers rose as a procession of black-robed young people made their way forward to meet a moment many years and tears in the making. And I heard a familiar whisper.
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It said, “You really ought to write a piece celebrating the rituals of spring.”
I’ve toyed with the idea many times. But invariably, the notion of some such languid meditation is burned away in the fire of more urgent news.
It almost happened again this year. Lord knows there is no shortage of urgent news. Did you hear about the president blabbing classified intel to the Russians? Did you see where he apparently asked the FBI director to back off an investigation? Did you know about the appointment of a special prosecutor?
The guy who promised to “drain the swamp” is snorkeling in it. The president — and, thus, the country — lurch from crisis to crisis like a drunk on the deck of a ship in high seas, and there is a queasy sense of America unraveling.
What are a prom, a wedding, a graduation against all that? These are not special things. These things happen all the time.
But that, of course, is precisely what makes them special. These things happen all the time.
Or, more to the point, they have happened, always. In the years when men went to war wearing pie pan helmets, during the gin and jazz of the ’20s, the brother, can you spare a dime of the ’30s, in the blood and sacrifice of the ’40s and the rock, riot and political murder of the ’60s, through gas lines, Max Headroom, and the meaning of is, through upheaval, change, and all the unravelings that have come before, certain things have always happened.
Fumbling fingers have always pinned corsages to girls’ dresses. Nervous couples have always pledged themselves one to the other. “Pomp and Circumstance” has always heralded the graduates.
I think that’s why, when you witness spring’s rituals, you almost always smile. Who can help smiling as some girl goes tottering on skyscraper heels into her prom or some graduate pumps his fist as he crosses the stage?
You smile, remembering. You smile because these are signs of continuity. You smile because they are acts of faith.
Yes, the president lurches. Yes, one feels an unraveling.
But the bride stands beneath the garland clutching her bouquet, as brides always have, the students move the tassel from right to left as students ever will. There is renewal in these rituals of spring. They allow you to remember that even now, some things are still good.
And to believe they always will be.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for The Miami Herald.