Madam Chancellor, Madam President, distinguished guests, faculty, graduates, families and friends, it is an honour to be asked to address you today.
Back in early December of 1958 I was nineteen years old, living with my wife and baby boy in a two-room apple-picker’s shack a few miles down the road from here. I had a job driving dump truck for a two-bit outfit that was working on a short stretch of highway just down the hill from where this University was built so many years later. I remember leaving the shack and walking out to stand by the highway in the wind and snow. I stood there shivering a bit in my heavy clothes as I waited to be picked up by the grader operator in his rusted pickup truck. The sky above me was hard and grey. Its only gift that winter day was the offer of ice disguised as a fragile, bitter snow. As I stood there in the false dawn I looked up for a moment and as I did an iridescent blue butterfly the size of my palm fluttered down and rested on the sleeve of my coat just above my wrist. It was winter, it was cold and I knew the Okanagan Valley where I had lived most of my young life did not harbour huge, shiny, blue butterflies, not even in summer. I remember stripping off my gloves and cupping the insect in my hands, lifting that exquisite creature to the warmth of my mouth in the hope I could save it from the cold. I breathed upon the butterfly with the helplessness we all have when we are faced with an impossible and inevitable death, be it a quail or crow, gopher, hawk, child, or dog. I cupped that delicate butterfly in the hollow of my hands and ran back to the picker’s shack in the hope that somehow the warmth from the morning fire in the woodstove might save it, but when I reached the door and opened my hands, the butterfly died.
I do not know what strange Santa Anna, Squamish, or Sirocco, jet-stream wind blew that sapphire butterfly from far off Mexico, Congo, or the Phillipines, to this valley. I only know the butterfly found its last moments in my hands. I have never forgotten it and know my encounter with it changed me. There are mornings in our lives when beauty falls into our hands and when that happens we must do what we can to nurture and protect it. That we sometimes fail must never preclude our striving. The day that beautiful creature died in my hands, I looked up into the dome of the hard, cold sky and I swore to whatever great spirit resided there in the dark clouds that I would live my life to the full, that I would treasure beauty. I swore, too, that I’d believe in honesty, faithfulness, love and truth. The words I spoke were the huge abstractions the young sometimes use, but I promised them to myself and, now, more than half a century later, I stand here in front of your young minds, your creative spirits, your beautiful lives, and I can tell you that I have tried.
I told myself that year and in the subsequent years in the sawmill crews and construction gangs I worked with, that I would become a writer, a poet, a man who would create an imagined world out of the world I lived in, that I would witness my life and the lives of others with words. The years went by filled with the tragedies and losses that all our lives are filled with. My brother’s early death, my father’s murder, my divorce and the loss of my children did not change the promises I made. There were times I lived a dissolute, irresponsible, and destructive life. There were times too when I was depressed and wretched, but I continued to believe in spite of my weaknesses and fears. I wandered the world and as I did I wrote of the lives that shared my times. And I wrote of this Okanagan Valley, its lakes and hills, its stones, cactii, cutthroat trout, magpies, rattlesnakes, and, yes, its butterflies.
What I have told you is a story. It arose from my life for where else but from a life can a story come? What I promise each of you is that there will come a day or night, a morning or evening when something as rare and fine as a blue sapphire butterfly will fall into your hands from a cold sky, a fearful child will climb into your bed and cleave to you, a woman or man will weep, will laugh, will sleep with you in the sure belief that the one they abide with is governed by a good and honest love. No matter the degrees you have earned and the knowledge you have accumulated, remember to believe in yourselves, to believe in each other. In a world as fearful as our present one I ask that you not be afraid. Today is merely an hour. Remember in the time ahead of you to hold out your hands so that beauty may fall safely into them and find a place – however briefly – to rest.