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Commencement

Susanne McNally

Susanne McNally HON'14, Dean of William Smith College
Baccalaureate Address
May 17, 2014

You know what? I am nervous. And that’s rare. So why, I wondered.

It’s partly because of this music – young and supple throats pouring out the gorgeous stuff Bob Cowles makes to happen. And it’s because Chaplain Adams, my dear friend Lesley, has such superb taste in poetry. To be here, surrounded by real poetry – language worked to a fine edge, layered meanings, teaching us something new or saying what we know already in such a way that we are brought to a grateful halt. This is a daunting context in which to speak!

And my topic is so prosaic – “Dimensions of Lunch” – concrete and ordinary. That’s from teaching about food, a very daily thing, for decades, long before it was stylish.

It was students who started it, asking for a course on hunger, in maybe 1978. Then I taught the Asian Studies introductory course with a colleague in Religious Studies and learned, to my surprise, that the theme of food took us to every essential thing about the ancient civilizations of Asia – from rice, circulating like blood on the Grand Canal, holding the Middle Kingdom together, all the way to who could reproduce with who in India. Religion, art, economics, society – food gets you everywhere.

So then I developed the World Food Systems course and students have been breaking down the door ever since. It’s not me; when I teach 19th century Russia I get a nice midsize class of interested students. But World Food Systems gets as big as I let it, term after term, for decades. I’ll come back to this.

After so many years of teaching that course, I see many dimensions in a meal. I want to tell you some, then how my whole world view has been shaped by what I learned from lunch.

There is the well-known socio-spatial dimension of eating a meal. It’s a truism that sitting down to eat together connects us – the pizza at two AM in a dorm, the holiday dinners at home, they do turn us into groups. Learning to enjoy an unfamiliar food, sea cucumber in China or blood pudding in Ireland, is a very real connection to another culture. Food does bind.

But I have learned to think of other social and economic dimensions of lunch. I know that when I eat anything, I am connected to every person who planted and weeded and harvested and slaughtered and packed and maybe cooked whatever I am lifting to my mouth.

I feel grateful to every one of these people, and I feel responsible to be sure my lunch does not come at the cost of their health, or the education of their children. And I want all of them to have a decent meal too. My lunch and their lives are connected, powerfully and literally.

Lunch also has a temporal dimension. When we eat, whatever we eat, we are living by means of gifts from people in the past. Each generation does not invent bread, or cupcakes, or BLTs, or pesto, or tamales, or cheese, or Peking duck, or fufu. These are gifts from our own and other people’s grandmothers. We do not invent jasmine rice or basmati rice or the rice called “wild” that isn’t rice at all. These are gifts from East Asian and South Asian and Native American gardeners and farmers. I feel grateful to those many cooks and gardeners, grandmothers and farmers.

But I also do worry about other connections to the past that are just as real. The oil that we pour into farming today comes from the energy systems of long ago. The sun’s rays and photosynthesis made plants, millions of years ago, and that energy has been stored ever since. When we reach back and bring those calories into our present, it is destabilizing to the environment – to soil and water ecologies, to the weather. I want to diversify our food system so it is not so dependent on oil – that way the oil will last longer, access to food will be more secure, and the system will last into the future. It will be sustainable.

I will only mention one more dimension of lunch. Food connects us to ourselves, as individuals. Food is part of our health and our pleasures as happy, healthy animals. I want that for myself, and for you, and for everyone alive. I want it for my grandchildren. I want it for your grandchildren. Yes, you twenty-two year olds, I want your grandkids to have pie – chicken and pumpkin pie. And I am willing to think and plan and act for that to be so.

The really interesting thing is this. Now I know that the same steps will be positive in all these dimensions. So what are the steps? being a foodie is not a step. It is fun and interesting to know the name of the sheep who gave the milk to make your manchego cheese, but that’s not what I am after here. What are the steps to improve all the dimensions of lunch?

First: eat usually lower on the food chain (less animals, more plants).

Second: eat mostly in season (when energy inputs are lowest).

Third: Eat some local foods (it’s fresher and it helps farmers).

Fourth: Eat some organic food (it’s better for your health and for the planet’s).

If a lot of us even begin to move down this path, all those dimensions of lunch will improve – our health, the environment, the welfare of the farmers and food workers and all their families, worldwide will benefit. That would certainly be positive.

But how does any of this connect to my world view?

Most fundamental is this. ALMOST EVERYTHNG IS CONNECTED TO ALMOST EVERYTHING ELSE.

It is both wonderful and a little unnerving the degree to which that is true. Not only food, but everything, I now see, exists in a multi-dimensional global/cosmic web. This, graduates, is the central idea and project of your era – to embrace, to deepen, to act upon. This is not a metaphor. It’s actual.

So when I stumbled on a big league spiritual teacher who said, “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness,” I thought, “Yes, that is exactly right.” And what a sturdy foundation for ethics, that is, our actual connection to most everything and everybody, through what we put in our mouths, at lunch.

And I saw that I had learned that interconnectedness through studying food, but I bet that studying anything gets to this central place.

The second things is a corollary. If everything is connected, then WHAT YOU DO MATTERS. You are not only impacted by your connection, your embededness in the web of being. You are empowered by it. You are given power. Cause acts on you, yes. But you are not a soccer ball. Whatever you elect to care about, you can influence – the welfare of children, or songbirds, or rivers, or cancer.

Another corollary is that we need to approach our projects, our urges to act, with courage and stamina, but also with some humility. Because if everything is interconnected, it means WE CAN NEVER CHANGE ONE THING. All efforts to change should be undertaken with clear goals and a deep analysis of what else will change. And then we should monitor the unexpected consequences that always occur.

Last, I always tell my students when they ask, which so many do, that their next step is only to begin. Commit to eating meat once a day instead of twice until it is easy to do it every other day. Don’t be discouraged, whatever your work. Remember – whatever you want to do, to express, to explore, to preserve, to end, to build, to understand – the very nature of the world, the fundamentally interconnected nature of the world, permits you…, enables you…, invites you…, to Commence.