Commencement Address

Carl James Grindley

Although they are not very profound, there are two observations I can make. One, after many years in the profession, I can assure you that you will develop, at first, empathy, and then, finally, compassion. That’s how you know it is time to retire. Two, and although it goes against what you have been told by the people who have trained you, the ghosts of the elderly are exceedingly rare. It is as simple as this: it does not matter whether the years were harsh or filled with passion and extravagances, the mere act of living many years reduces the depth of passion at time of death. No one wants to hear that. I know. It is a melancholic observation that we are doomed to eventually tire of the world and its profound beauty.

Think about it. And here we are speaking of those who achieved advanced age. Those whose lives beat them down or who were subjected to terrible abuses are relieved to find themselves free of all of those things that caused them distress. And those who enjoyed their long years feel a sense of meaningful fulfillment. Indeed, the majority of malevolent spirits are, therefore, the remnants of the very young.

Oftentimes, or so it seems at first glance, it is discovered that the spirit haunting this or that place, breaking plates, causing food to rot, possessing the weak-minded and so on is the angry spirit of an old woman who was once betrayed and impoverished by her supposed fiancé. Although this sort of thing happens from time to time, it is not the norm and only stands out because it is so obviously an abutment with the supernatural. Because such a person lived so long a time, she has tremendous knowledge of our world, great power, and an intimate understanding of the fragility of our hopes, our dreams, our emotional lives.

But more common by a nearly inconceivable factor are those hauntings no one notices. These minor hauntings are what I am primarily interested in discussing. Because they pass practically without observation and because they rarely do more than randomly inconvenience the living, I doubt very much that any of your instructors have bothered to spend much time on the subject.

The term “very young,” by the way, does not include the unsuccessful poet, for example, who at 22 years old, ignored by the world, possessed himself by the haunting memory of lost love, convinced that his talents far outpace their sober discernment by the critical world… when that young man drinks carbolic acid and so ends his life, thereafter appearing nightly as a shrouded terrifying figure in the local library… I am not interested in him. He is a pathetic poltergeist, a thing to be chased away from the realm of the living. Thoroughly uninteresting, despite how many term papers you have probably written about him and his ilk. No, I do mean “very young” in its most precise sense.

When a child dies, and in particular I mean a very young infant who has drawn only a few shallow breaths, the longing for lost life is at its most profound. Within the first few independent beatings of the heart, the child falls immediately and deeply in love with life. This love, of course, tarnishes with the years, but at birth, it is almost boundless.

I know what you are all thinking. Yes. A question or two does sometimes arise regarding the spirits of the unborn, or even of the unconceived. The unborn, I would argue, are truly blissful, and are incapable of feeling anger or regret or jealousy even at being cut off from their joy. The womb is a perfect space, and all time spent in it is a fathomless and universally-appreciated gift.

Of those who are not yet or who will never be conceived, enough ink has already been spent discussing their worldviews. Let those who study the Nowhere Place speak for those who are trapped in boundless non-existence.

So when an infant dies, her soul, sobbing for a lost life, will sometimes latch on to whatever is closest. Yes, you see? The power of age encompasses entire places. This woman, mistreated and ostracized her entire lonely life, then tortured and burnt as a witch, can inhabit an entire wood, cause plague in cattle, and infertility in the neighboring villages. But the two-day-old infant? What power has she? Not so much. And as sad as it is, the weakness of these small souls, coupled with their longing for what was denied, results in a background level of activity that is routinely ignored, dismissed, or even ridiculed.

One day, you might look in a mirror and the face that peers back at you through the fog of a gently tarnished silver will carry one or two extra lines. Perhaps when you go to the linen closet to find a tablecloth, you discover that although you folded it expertly, there is an inexplicable wrinkle. Or consider the jacket from whose perfect pocket loose change always vanishes. Maybe these are random events. Maybe these are symptoms of your own negligence, your own carelessness, your own distractions. But maybe not. It is entirely possible that you are surrounded by insignificant tragedy and as attuned as you are at this stage in your training, you are nevertheless caught unawares.

I have a flower pot at home, a very large Japanese bowl I haphazardly repurposed from whatever it was originally intended to be. Perhaps you read about it in my book? I see some of you nod. You are all being most courteous. I will summarize the story however inadequately for those who do not know it. In this pot, which I still possess, almost all plants are doomed to wither and die. It does not matter how the soil pH is adjusted. It does not matter how skillfully nutrients are managed. It does not matter how diligently watering occurs. Within four months—actually, the measurement is precise, wholly lunar and filled with meaning and sorrow—whatever planted in that pot dies. There are, as some of you know, a few notable exceptions, but the vast majority of plants are so fated. It is only by sheer chance that I noticed this phenomenon. I became convinced, beyond all reason, that my failures as a horticulturalist were more professional than not. I investigated as best as I could. I grew all manner of flower and herb, from fragrant tea olives to scallions, from pansies to radishes (both European and Japanese). A few anomalies stood out.

I do not think I shall ever forget this tragic list: Habenaria radiata, Freesia, Fritillaria camschatcensis, Aster tataricus, Amaryllis Belladonna, Red Spider Lily, Sweet Pea… they thrived and had to be cut back well before their time. Similarly, Bush Clovers grew spectacularly.

Yes, you see? You’ve all taken botany. You know the meaning of these plants. You have all mastered Hanakotoba. Asters are for remembrance. Amaryllis for shyness. Freesias represent the childish and immature. Habenaria suggest thoughts will follow into dreams. The flourishing of these particular plants taken together was a despairing message of sadness, longing, a life cut very short, and an almost sweet wish for revenge for something so precious so newly lost. Bush Clover was the final clue. It is the birth flower for July. When I examined the pot, I discovered that it had clear marks showing period, prefecture, company and so on. I only lacked the potter’s and the painter’s marks. My hopes, however, were high that I would be able to solve this simple mystery.

It was a simple enough task to visit the factory and make a few discreet inquiries. There was, as you suspected, a young potter whose daughter died of a fever in her fourth month, in the year that the pot was thrown. I suspect that the young soul wished to remain with her mother, but who only had the strength to drift from place to place, nestling perhaps in her mother’s arms, until all she could do was seek refuge in the drying clay. Poor thing. I left Japan without letting anyone know what I had discovered. And in my book, as you have guessed, I changed all the details in order so that the mother might never learn. It is enough tragedy to have a child perish young. This would be of an even greater magnitude.

So now we have come to the commencement part of my address: the moral quandary. What should I do? If I smash the pot, the tiny soul will be released back to the Nowhere Place to await rebirth or to wait forever surrounded by eternal sorrow. If I keep the pot, am I not unfairly trapping a being whose longing and regret is already constant?

This is not a question I can answer for you. All I can suggest is that you face the world with care. Be aware of the lives that touch your own whether you know that they do or not. Be true, of course, to your craft, but do not cause pain either to the living or the departed unnecessarily. Respect the outlines of the infinite as best you can, for you never know where you will persist.

Now forgive me, class of 2018, I have some flowers to water.


About the Author

Carl James Grindley is a Canadian writer who has lives and works in The Bronx. Three of his novellas were published by No Record Press under the title Icon.