Saturday, August 27, 2011


On the eve of my 24th birthday it seems appropriate to contemplate beginnings. I can now count my remaining days in Australia on one hand and it is making me inordinately sad. Mama suggested that I view it as a commencement rather than an endpoint. She is right on so many levels. This experience has turned me on to so many ideas and people that have without a doubt advanced my thinking about natural resource management and public participation. I think the contacts I've made here will continue to be useful in my work from here on out. My upcoming work on Arkansas water planning is really like Step 15 in a long progression of events and experiences that began way back when I was born.

The last official commencement ceremony I attended was Barnard graduation. It was a surprisingly good day. Meryl Streep made it amazing. She said, "I can assure that awards have very little bearing on my own personal happiness. My own sense of well-being and purpose in the world. That comes from studying the world feelingly, with empathy in my work. It comes from staying alert and alive and involved in the lives of the people that I love and the people in the wider world who need my help. No matter what you see me or hear me saying when I'm on your TV holding a statuette spewing, that's acting."

Studying the world feelingly. I like that. It's important for all people, but may come more easily to women because of the way we're maybe hardwired or because we have suffered less of the emotional repression that men have generally been subjected to throughout the centuries. I have put a lot of my heart into this latest episode down under, but it is really only one class in this whole long course of life study.

On a whim, in that last month as a Barnard senior, my friend Megan and I decided to audition to be the student commencement speaker. Together. It threw everyone off, but we charmed them enough to get a call-back to the second round. Even though we weren't chosen in the end, the experience sticks with me for several reasons. First, the speech we wrote was all about maintaining the burning curiosity ("staying alert and alive," thanks Meryl!) we valued in many of the Barnard women we knew, a philosophy that still plays a central role in both our lives. Second, it was the perfect continuation of both of our careers as perceived renegades. Megan had dropped out for a semester to rebuild houses and community in Buffalo. I had gone abroad for a semester without the approval of my Department. We both designed our own thesis projects, braving the criticism and sometimes ridicule of classmates and professors. Together, we constantly sought to make Barnard a better place by developing programs for a more sustainable campus and agitating for institutional change. So much so that a girl once asked Megan, "why do you hate Barnard so much?" We were shocked at the time, but laugh about it now. You can't help people who just don't get it.

I'll give a commencement speech of sorts on Monday, when I present my findings to DERM and facilitate a conversation about them. Hopefully I'll provide some fresh insights that will spark new ideas and lead to new ways of operating. I know my findings make a difference in the way I will operate in the future, but making a difference in the wider world is still the goal.

Megan is one person who is definitely making a difference to a lot of people. Here's a great story she recently posted on her blog: "When my Granddad was not well a couple of weeks ago, I rushed to see him after working on a demolition crew all day. I was COVERED with soot from head to toe. Everyone was cracking jokes about my appearance, etc. but Caroline my 3 year old cousin walked into the room, took one look at my soot covered face and dirt stained clothes and her eyes lit up as she yelled, "Princess Girl Fighter!" Apparently she had told her mother that this is what she wants to be when she grows up, and so she carries around plastic tools in her toolbelt while wearing a sparkly princess dress!"

Hopefully I'm well on my way to Princess Girl Fighter status. Happy 24th to me!

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