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Holy Cross grads told ‘never give up’

Posted By May 30, 2013 | 1:02 pm | Lead Story #3
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By Tanya Connor

Stories of life and death and power in the midst of powerlessness, marked the 167th commencement at the College of the Holy Cross, held Friday in the Hart Recreation Center. Speakers challenged the 701 graduates not to give up.
Commencement speaker Anne Fadiman said she owed her career as a writer – and even her marriage – to a woman who never said a word to her, and to that woman’s family.
In conferring upon Professor Fadiman an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Jesuit Father Philip L. Boroughs, Holy Cross president, noted that she is the daughter of literary and broadcast personality Clifton Fadiman, and World War II correspondent and author Annalee Whitmore Fadiman.
“We are a community of readers and book lovers, and your volumes have a treasured place in our classrooms, syllabi, libraries, and homes,” he told her. “Because of your book, ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,’ Lia Lee – daughter of Hmong immigrants – has become an essential and unforgettable name for students of medicine, students of writing, and all who seek understanding across cultures.”
Also receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree was Holy Cross alumnus and media executive Jack D. Rehm, who funded the college’s Rehm Library. Receiving an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree was Sister Janet Eisner, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who’s been president of Emmanuel College in Boston for 34 years.
Professor Fadiman spoke about learning from two young women she loved and lost last year  – Lia, who couldn’t talk but “spoke” to her, and Yale University student Marina Keegan, whose writings are to be published.
Lia was an epileptic in a “vegetative state” who recognized the smell and feel of her mother’s skin and cried when she was absent, Professor Fadiman said. Doctors sought to use their best treatments for her condition, but Lia’s parents saw her condition as a spiritual gift and wanted to treat her by using herbs and animal sacrifices. The two cultures clashed.
Lia’s mother also jumped-started Professor Fadiman’s marriage, dressing her as a Hmong bride when she thought the time right. Her beloved proposed the next week.
Professor Fadiman said Lia had value and was kept alive because of the love of her family, who cared for her for 26 years. And, because of her, the hospital’s way of treating people changed.
“Lia was not weak; she was strong,” she said. Her parents wanted her to grow up to be a shaman, and she did, as a shaman is a healer, she said.
“Lia Lee is teaching at Holy Cross right now,” she said. “I’m just the conduit.
“See things from the other point of view,” she urged graduates. “I mean the entire universe.” In their clashes, Lia’s doctors and family were unable to do that, but through their experience Professor Fadiman said she learned to do it.
She gave examples of broadening one’s horizons, such as volunteering in a prison if one becomes a trial attorney.
While Lia was silent, Professor Fadiman said, Marina made noise and was a little wild. She wrote short stories, poetry and plays, seeking to combine art and activism.
Marina died in a car accident last year, just after graduation. Professor Fadiman said Marina’s parents embraced her boyfriend and told him they didn’t blame him; he was neither drinking nor speeding, but fell asleep. They told him Marina would want him to go on with life.
Professor Fadiman said she couldn’t believe Marina died; she would have fought even death. But she lives on in her writing. Her message was, “Never give up; there can always be a better thing.”
She told of Marina’s goal of winning a sailing race, a goal she changed to simply finishing, as strong winds caused her to capsize repeatedly and the other women and some macho men to drop out.
“Marina did not give up, and I hope you won’t give up either,” Professor Fadiman said, urging graduates not to confine themselves to easy races they expect to win, as the more magnificent triumphs are harder.
“Finish every race … in remembrance of the one race she couldn’t finish,” she said.
Travis John LaCouter, a political science and Catholic studies major from Concord, N.H., sounded a similar theme in the valedictory address.
He spoke of difficulties during college and of the hard work and support of others that brought graduates to commencement day.
“You’ve all heard the litany of doom before: the economy is fragile, the world is in turmoil, our leaders are ineffective, our planet is suffering, our communities are deteriorating, injustice abounds,” he said. “These all seem … to be true; our lives will be constrained in real ways by forces beyond our control. But … we must not give in to despair … we must not give in to apathy! …
“Our task now is to turn outward to a world desperately in need of our very best, to really become men and women for and with others. … We will be disappointed … We will be embarrassed … Things won’t go according to plan. But if Holy Cross has taught us anything, it’s that some things – the best things – aren’t easy. This college has done its best to prevent us from leaving here today unchallenged, which, after all, would mean leaving here unchanged.”
Somewhat apologizing for invoking the “hill metaphor” typical of graduations at Mount St. James, Mr. LaCouter nevertheless maintained, “It is only after the grueling climb that you can appreciate how glorious the summit really is! And it is only upon reaching the summit that you realize how the climb has changed you into who you are today. … This is … a time to look forward to our next adventure. To harness the nervous energy coursing through this stadium and direct it in a constructive way towards a higher purpose. …
“In a speech that the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson places in the mouth of the aging Ulysses, we hear that mythic hero’s enduring sense of this same thrill as he prepares to embark on his next adventure. He says: ‘Though much is taken, much abides … we are … made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’”