COMMENCEMENT 2009 - Baccalaureate Address

The Worms Crawl In, The Worms Crawl Out
Lesley M. Adams
May 16, 2009


Classes of 2009, you are almost out of here. You are almost full-fledged adults ready to wing your way into the future, ready to try your hand at getting it right for this world.

You have had many years of schooling now, so you understand where your parents’ and grandparents’ generations have come up short. You can see that in the interests of good hygiene, public safety, economic efficiency we have made a lot of mistakes and left you with a bit of a mess.

We wanted to protect you from illness and pain, violence and death, and so we worked at creating antiseptic environments in which to raise you. We birthed you in hospitals cleaned with anti-bacterial scrubs. We put our garbage down the disposal and invented disposable diapers for you to wear. We removed the aging and dying to nursing homes and hospitals. We separated the poor into public housing and migrant labor camps, and we carted the homeless off our streets and into shelters. We took the poultry and livestock out of our yards and housed and slaughtered them where few had to see or smell or know what was going on.

We wanted you to grow up on the Star Ship Enterprise.

But now you have gone to college. You have learned that many of our attempts to protect you from dirt and violence, disease and death have gone awry. The anti-septic environments have increased autoimmune diseases. The anti-bacterial scrubs and pills have encouraged the growth of even more virulent bugs. Segregating the poor and the different has increased fear and resentment on all sides. Our food production and waste disposal systems are poisoning the planet. Removing childbirth, aging and death from our homes has increasingly alienated us from the natural cycles of life.

So it’s tempting to tell you that you need to grow up fast in order to outwit the enemies we have yet to master. But instead, I’m going to suggest something I learned in Sunday School. “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18: 3)

I admit it’s an odd thing to do, to tell you to be more like children. You are ready to step out into the adult world. Your parents and teachers have spent the last 20 plus years urging you to grow up. Develop those frontal lobes! Learn to make good decisions! Save our planet! Please! And you are ready to go.

But I want you to hang on to some of that little kid in you. I want you to remember when “Oooh gross!” meant “Let’s check it out.” I want you to learn to love worms again.

Remember when you were a kid how much you enjoyed singing the worm songs? You remember them. “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout.” Or how about this one, “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I’m going to eat some worms. “

It turns out worm songs are centuries old. There is nursery rhyme published in 1810 about an old lady visiting a church.

On looking up, on looking down,
She saw a dead man on the ground;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crawled out, the worms crawled in.

Then she unto the parson said,
Shall I be so when I am dead?
O yes! O yes! the parson said,
You will be so when you are dead.
(Grammer Gurton’s Garland)

And in a 1796 novel the ballad of Alonzo the Brave and the Fair Imogene includes this verse when the dead Alonzo returns to haunt is faithless bride on her wedding day,

All present then uttered a terrified shout;
All turned with disgust from the scene.
The worms, They crept in, and the worms, They crept out,
And sported his eyes and his temples about,
While the Spectre addressed Imogene.
(The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis)

And in case you think that this fascination with worms is restricted to the West, I’m going to read this truly disgusting excerpt from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, 10 Foul Objects for meditation,

#9. Puluvaka: a corpse infested with worms: long worms, short worms, black, green, and yellow worms, squeezed into the ears, eyes, and mouth; squirming and squiggling about, filling the various parts of the body like a net full of fish that has fallen open.
(from 40 Traditional Buddhist Meditation Themes

OK, I have more. But I’ll stop for a moment.

Understand, however, that 8 year-old boys would urge me to go on. And that’s what I want you to remember. Kids love this stuff. Kids and your classmate Caitlin Seadale. When she saw the title for this Address she immediately wrote me from Vietnam on Facebook, “yay for gross things! have you seen the recent photos of my leech-filled adventures? it was AWESOME. :)” So of course, I had to look and found these truly horrifying photos of bloody leeches stuck to her ankles, then photos of legs dripping with blood from where the leeches had been pulled off.

Kids love worms (and other gross worm-like things.) This is why the residents Shropshire, England are so brilliant. They realized the perfect way to celebrate their native son Charles Darwin’s 200 birthday, was to inaugurate the Darwin’s Worms project.

Darwin, as Betty Bayer reminded me yesterday, was fascinated with worms. He spent 40 years observing their work and running all kinds of crazy experiments on them with his kids.

As a result of his fascination, Darwin became the first scientist to discover how earthworms improved soil, taking it in, digesting organic material and ejecting soil as manure, or worm casts.
(Will James, “Darwin Day 2009: Worm Therapy”)

In his 60 odd page treatise on the lowly worm, Darwin waxes eloquent on the worms’ ability to transform death into the material for new life.

So now in Shropshire many of the nursery schools and kindergartens have been supplied with their can-o-worms composting bins. It’s perfect right? You can just see the little kids gathered around. “Ooh gross. Let’s watch some more. Let’s feed them some garbage. Let’s pick them up.” Kids love worms.

Of course, I’d be lying to you if I said worm farming is all fun and games. It can be stinky and messy, especially when the drain gets plugged up. And worms won’t really eat all of my garbage. They won’t process meats and fats and bones. They don’t like coffee grounds and egg shells very much. And there is a limit to how much they can devour. So with the extra scraps from Pasta Night and Campus Peer Ministry types and all the stuff the worms won’t eat, I also have to have a regular compost bucket. And that gets gross, and has to be hauled down to the composting bin. It’s definitely not entertaining, and my kids certainly don’t want to do it.

So why do I do it? Why do I want you to do it? Because learning to love worms is how we’re going to save the planet, ourselves, and each other. As we learn to love the worms, we will learn from them that transforming garbage into the material for new life our purpose too.

Prabi just read to us the story of Asanga. Now he really loved worms. He loved the worms (and the wounded dog) so much that he was ready to give them his own body to live on. He loved them so much he was ready to lift them with his tongue rather than risk crushing them with his fingers. His compassion, after 12 years of meditation, was universal and complete. I’m guessing that most of us will not reach that level of compassion.

But understand that Divine Compassion always calls us to engage fully, personally, and compassionately in the yuckiness of life. In the Christian tradition we remember when Doubting Thomas was invited to place his hand in Jesus’ wounded side, to touch the mark of the nails in his hands. (Jn. 20:27) No antiseptic perfection there. Even resurrected life is reality in its full yuckiness. And in order to know that reality, we have to be willing to touch it. To get our own hands dirty.

Julian of Norwich put it another way – Be a Gardiner. When we begin dig a ditch in the earth, befriend a few worms, get our hands dirty, we begin to learn to do our spiritual work as well. We learn to “seek the deepness.” We learn to face the darkness, to engage our interior turmoil. Turning “the earth upside down” we expose the doubts, the injustices, prejudices, the garbage that must be composted if we are to harvest compassion.

Classes of 2009 you already have the skills you need to deal with the messiness of this world. Over the past four years, in the classroom and in the residence halls, in internships and travels you have had all sorts of experiences, taken in all sorts of ideas. Some experiences have been great, some have been horrible. Some ideas were immediately inspiring. Some you thought were pure garbage. But you have processed it all. The worms crawled in, the worms crawled out expanding your capacity to learn and grow. In your personal lives you have begun to dig around, to sort through uncomfortable messages from within and without. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. New understandings of yourselves and of the world are beginning to emerge.

So as you leave this place, please continue to be gardeners. Participate in the joy of abundance. Like Darwin, learn to see the invisible ones. Like kids, retain a fascination for the yucky. Like the adults you have become, attend to the anxious wriggling in your own gut. Listen to the voices you would rather ignore. Learn to love the processing of garbage as it is transformed into the material of your new life.

And adopt some worms.

You’ll love them.



Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.