“This semester, I hope you will aim to live in the present, and to do everything that comes with it. Meet others there and embrace them. Make memories in space and time with people, and with yourself. Let the past trail behind you like a dirt road, and let the future unfold beneath your feet like pavement. Be where you are. Put down your phone and take in all that is happening around you. Breathe in this moment; once you do, it will always be happening at this place in space and time.”
-Mr. Mike Dudley
Friday, January 27, 2023, was the exciting start of a new semester at John Bapst Memorial High School. Enjoy the inspiring address by Mr. Mike Dudley, science faculty member. Prior to the address members the John Bapst Orchestra performed of On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter, a piece important to the speaker.
The text of Mr. Dudley’s address:
Good morning, everyone. Convocation at John Bapst is a wonderful tradition, and I am humbled to be your convocation speaker today. I want to tell you about an idea in my life that has simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, given me a sense of identity and solace and also left me lost and wandering. Before we start, I have one request: put away your phones if they’re out, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and open them again. Let’s be where we are.
Let me tell you about the song you just heard. Performed by the John Bapst Orchestra, On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter is played at the end of the movie Arrival. This is my favorite movie of all time, and I strongly recommend its foundational text, Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, if Ms. Bennett hasn’t already engaged you in it. I will get back to the importance of this story later in my talk.
I will tell today’s story in three parts. The first part begins in Olympia, Washington, on December 20, 1983, at 6 AM. The second part begins in Burlington, Vermont, on May 27, 2012, at 7 AM. The final part begins in Nashua, New Hampshire on December 14, 2012, at 9:40 AM. Join me on this journey.
PART ONE: HOME
I was born at 3735 Boulevard Road, southeast, in Olympia, Washington, in a bathtub. You heard me correctly. When I found out this strange “fact” from my grandmother, my Aunt Chris laughed at the perplexed look on my face. “But, I thought my birth certificate said that I was born at Saint Peter’s in Oly,” I said.
“Nope, definitely not, you were born at home,” she said, as though learning that you were born in a bathtub was no big deal.
I was born in the place I remember most intimately. My grandparents’ house was a sprawling haven in which a curious kid could become blissfully lost. The entryway, lined by shrubs and a tall fence, led into a paved parking lot. The house wrapped around this driveway, forming an “L” shape. My grandfather’s two-pit car garage, a place I frequently visited to put my tricycle on the two-ton hydraulic floor jack, was a waystation for a parade of classic cars: Packards, Mustangs, old Mercedes-Benz sedans, tractors and pick-up trucks. Beyond the driveway, a patch of blackberry and raspberry bushes grew, tall and spindly enough to be dangerous, yet trimmed enough to give access to the fruit that began to sprout in the late spring.
To enter the house, I always came in through a sliding door that awkwardly led to the dining room. This was my grandmother’s domain: the kitchen where she cooked her famous egg rolls and other delights of Japanese and Okinawan cuisine was off to the right, and ahead was the living room where she would practice traditional Okinawan dance. This was also where we would celebrate Christmas, and where my family would fight over what to watch after the Seahawks played. A hallway led to the rooms in the rest of the L-shaped structure: the bathroom where I was born was off to the left, my grandparents’ bedroom off to the right, and a massive space that remained unfinished until the last time I remember being in that house was nestled in the back.
From there, I could step out another sliding door, through a small alcove where my grandparents kept their firewood, and onto another empty patch of land. This open field was where my grandmother liked to plant potatoes and carrots. My grandfather grew up on a farm in Minnesota, so he knew how to till the soil for my grandmother’s agricultural experiments.
While the house is no longer there and the land no longer looks the same, I could step onto that parcel and tell you every place I had laid my footsteps, skinned my knees, learned cribbage and chess, played too many hours on my NES, eaten my grandfather’s smoked herring, and been rapped on the knuckles by my grandmother’s chopsticks for trying to sneak an egg roll too soon. In this place, I learned how to get lost and find my way again, amid the sprawling maze of cars and blackberry brambles and potato plants and tractors. And if I were to visit again, I could tell you exactly where the bathtub was, whether I was born there or not. Aunt Chris believes that it is this place, my home, that instilled in me curiosity, courage, and a positive restlessness. Most importantly, it was a place where I had the privilege of living in the present, being where I was, inhabiting a world where my family and I were all lost in the moment.
In 2019 I visited Olympia to celebrate my Uncle Roger’s life after his long battle with ALS. Upon landing in Seattle, I grabbed my rental car and headed south on I-5 toward Olympia, exiting onto Pacific Avenue. A quick right turn on Fones Road, and a drive of about a mile or so. A right at the roundabout onto 18th Avenue, and another two miles, and I could turn left onto Boulevard Road, travel south on that stretch, past my old middle school, and right by the place of my birth on the way to my Aunt Chris’s house in East Olympia. All these years, and I can still find my way, without a map or a GPS. I know the way by heart.
PART TWO: THE MARATHON
Once upon a time, I was a runner. After losing weight and discovering the freedom and portability that came with running, it became my passion. After trying a few road races, I endeavored to tackle the marathon.
I chose to run the Vermont City Marathon, a road race that takes place annually on the streets of Burlington, Vermont, on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend. Four months of brutal training followed: weeks spent running ever-increasing mileage, sprints up massive hills in the New Hampshire countryside, afternoons where I would run as soon as I could so that I could get that day’s miles in before the streets got dark. For all my training, which involved an endless cycle of eating, hydrating, running, resting, and repeating, I didn’t dedicate more time to one thing: the map of the course.
The key to running a marathon well is a solid plan. When I say this, I mean a plan for every single mile: how fast to run, a plan of attack for hills, knowing where to take gel packs, training with the Gatorade the race organizers provide, rotating shoes so that you know which pair to take on the day, even a plan for what to wear and how to wear it. A solid plan even outweighs having completed a twenty-two mile long run, in my humble opinion.
On race morning, I pounded a cup of Cumberland Farms coffee and a Clif Bar before making my way to the start line. Shannon, who was pregnant with Meredith at the time, was there to cheer me on and take pictures of me looking like I played a marathon runner on TV.
The energy in Burlington on race day is incredible. The entire city, roughly 30,000 people, spills onto the streets to cheer runners, hand out food, wave signs, play music, and enjoy the festivities. It is truly a community event. Beneath that infectious enthusiasm is a deceptively tough race over four legs of varying terrain that eats runners alive, draining them of fuel and sucking their spirit dry. That is the danger of the Vermont City Marathon: it is a spectacle, and it is easy to go out too fast and ignore the pace set by your own body.
I barely knew the starting gun had gone off. My race started in Battery Park, a gorgeous patch of green atop a gigantic hill overlooking Lake Champlain, where old cannons once stood watch over the harbor. After a quarter of a mile, I turned left with the field past the Cathedral Church of Saint Paul, eight bells loudly sounding in its campanile. A while down Pearl Street and I turned right onto South Willard Street, through the former Champlain College campus and to the iconic Church Street Marketplace. Past the 5K mark, I entered the Burlington Beltline, a stretch of Vermont Route 127 that is closed specifically for the race. After running past the Ethan Allen Homestead in a grueling out-and-back, I returned to Battery Park at mile nine, only to look at my Garmin and realize that I was a full eight minutes ahead of pace.
Being the agent of chaos I am, my heart began to soar, envisioning a posted time that would beat my goal time by leaps and bounds. My friends, this is a mistake. Never let your head get ahead of your legs in a marathon. Stay in the moment, stick to your plan, live in the present.
Past mile nine, I ran through Church Street Marketplace moving in the opposite direction, and made the long slog toward the halfway point through south Burlington. Along Pine Street, scores of people were offering orange slices and bananas and Gatorade of different colors, sure tickets to gastrointestinal distress. Many runners took the food as a show of kindness and pitched it away a hundred feet down the road. Not me. After taking an orange slice from a six-year-old, I put it into my mouth and fashioned it into a wide citrusy smile, just to make the kid happy. Another mistake; when running a marathon, stick to the food plan.
Feeling a gurgle in my stomach, I rounded the halfway point at Oakledge Park. The wind whipped against the runners as waves from Lake Champlain crashed upon the seawall lining the park. One short mile and I encountered what I now know to be the most dangerous part of the race: the Assault on Battery Street.
Battery Street Hill rises from south to north into Battery Park. The hill is steep and long, and placed in the middle of the race at mile 15. The crowds grew thicker on this part of the route, until I could hear the faint sound of drums. After turning a brief corner, BAM! The rumble of drums was coming from a company of taiko drummers, shaking the air with thunderous drumbeats and chants. The music at the top of the hill was also of the aggressive variety: the screamy sounds of Foo Fighters were blaring through the speakers at the start line. It was tempting to try to sprint up that hill, but by then, the runners around me were starting to fade, starting to walk, starting to clutch their sides to relieve stitches and cramps. My time was getting close.
After the buzz of mile 15, the race carried me through some of Burlington’s quieter neighborhoods, and by mile 22 I was in a tranquil spot near the Burlington Bike Path. On the way past Starr Farm Park, I could feel the sudden seizing of my calf muscles, the immense pain in my quads, and the labored breathing that made me feel like I was suffocating. This is known as “hitting the wall”, the point at which a runner has exhausted their glycogen stores and is beginning to metabolize other nutrient stores in their body. Hitting the wall is hell. And I still had four more miles to go. At a painful, pathetic pace, I reached the finish line, limping and wheezing and grimacing, hardly finishing at the triumphant canter at which I began, finishing in three hours, fifty minutes, and eight seconds, nearly ten minutes behind goal.
I loved that marathon. I loved it enough to run it two more times, even after two brothers shook the roadrunning community by setting off two pressure cookers at the world’s most famous marathon. And I loved that route for teaching me to know my own limits, run my own race, and always have a plan. I know it by heart.
PART THREE: MEREDITH
At 6 AM on December 14, 2012, Meredith Renee Levesque came into the world. I will spare you the details of Meredith’s birth; instead, I’ll tell you that this moment in my life is the start of yet another journey, but one of a different kind.
While Meredith slept in the neonatal intensive care unit at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua, New Hampshire, a terror struck us as parents. We had known parental terror, losing our first daughter, Emma Claire, to stillbirth in 2011. This new fear was not a lightning strike close to home, but rather a terrifying omen out in the world: in that birthing suite, we saw on the television that twenty children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, earlier that morning.
As parents, we were fumbling for the response necessary to cope with the moment, where we only witnessed the pain and suffering of other parents from afar, and therefore felt it ourselves. What came in response was a determination to raise Meredith to be kind, compassionate, empathetic, curious, and courageous. And to do that would require particular parents, parents we had no clue how to be. I am still lost at the endeavor of parenthood. There is no road map, just the star you set on the people you hope your children become. And on that front, I feel I’ve had success in one important way.
Meredith is the best road trip companion one could ever ask for. I can hardly articulate the sheer joy that comes with spending money on junk food at gas stations like kids, which she has let me know she does with expertise. There is no thrill greater than landing the clap line in Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” with perfection. Will you ever have more fun than pretending that a 2015 Chevy Spark is a rocketship on your way to Aroostook County to see the planets that line Route 1 from Topsfield to Presque Isle? You might not if Meredith is your copilot.
In the summer of 2019, the Duvesque clan took a road trip from Bangor, Maine, to Stevensville, Montana, to visit my cousin and her family. Five days on the road took us across the continent, through Ontario and over the Soo Locks into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, through Minnesota and across the tiny creek that is the far northern Mississippi River, over the plains of North Dakota and through the Badlands to Big Sky Country. Shannon had to fly back for work at the end of our time in Montana, leaving me and Meredith to drive the family Forester, lovingly dubbed the War Rig, across the United States and back to Maine.
On the third day of the trip, Meredith and I stayed in South Bend, Indiana. After a feast of Domino’s and Diet Coke, and restless sleep on cheap mattresses with awful pillows, I decided to take Meredith on an adventure in search of a border marker. If you have heard me talk about geography in any way, shape, or form, you’ll know that I love seeking out borders and border anomalies in particular. Landing in South Bend was a blessing for a border nut like me, for the east-west routes that run through and around the city skirt close to the Michigan-Indiana border, with Ohio just a drive away.
It is here in the story that I’ll let you in on my first direct piece of advice, which I have buried in my speech like an old family recipe on a food blog. Did anyone notice how I made you listen to the stories before doling out the good advice that is supposed to come with every convocation speech? Gotcha, kids; please click on the ads. Without further ado, my first piece of advice:
Don’t use GPS. I’m serious, folks. Perform your own navigation, get an atlas, the Maine Gazetteer, anything, and make it a point to get lost occasionally. For out there, in the world, in the universe, in space and time, is where your memories are made, particularly while you are navigating. For how this works, you need look no further than the hippocampus. Your hippocampus is the powerful part of your brain that is responsible for making mental maps of your environment, and it is also the place where your memories are made, crafted, and placed within your mind. Your hippocampus also gives you the ability to make sense of time: what can happen in the future, how to process the present, and how to recall the past.
The hippocampal gray matter of the London Cab Drivers, who have to pass an exam in order to earn licensure, is reputed to be almost superhuman on account of their encyclopedic knowledge of the London street grid. Similarly, groups such as the Inuit, the Polynesians, and the Indigenous Australians, rely on storytelling, their use of senses and observations, and a knowledge of natural landmarks to find their way with uncanny precision in the absence of maps and electronic guidance. The hippocampus at work.
Your hippocampus is the best GPS you will ever own, because it is also a built-in storytelling device, memory maker, identity forger, and timekeeper. Let it do the work, and give it plenty of practice.
Back to the hunt for the Michigan-Indiana-Ohio tripoint. Rolling out of South Bend, Meredith and I traveled about an hour and a half east on I-80, eventually finding Indiana Route 120, which leads to a small town called Fremont, Indiana. We fueled up the War Rig, bought Cheetos Puffs and beef jerky and seltzer, sang Rachel Platten, and continued on Route 120, until we saw a small, nondescript sign that said “Indiana State Line,” signaling that we had entered Michigan. And off to the right, hidden by a small grove of trees, was a dirt road right where the state line sits. Driving in the “right lane” of this dirt road puts the driver in Indiana, and Michigan is in the opposite lane. Not more than a quarter mile south on this road, and we meet an abrupt transition to pavement, on a road flanked by plots of farmland. On the right is Indiana, and on the left is Ohio.
In order to mark these locations, surveyors place a marker or a monument describing the nature of the borders that meet at that location. At the logical location where these borders meet, the intersection of a line cutting the street in half with the boundary of the dirt road and the pavement road, there was a massive pit of silty soil, made flat by standing water. “Meredith, there is a border marker here; it’s where three states meet!”
“Are you sure it’s here?” she asked.
“Yes, I think it’s under this dirt,” I said.
“You know what that means, Dad,” she exclaimed. “We have to dig it up!”
After five minutes of hilarious digging and watching the road for a truck or a tractor, we found it: a brass marker with a letter “M”, right in the middle of the road. We both felt like we had dug up buried treasure, a landmark in space and time known to only us, on a quiet morning where a blue sky blanketed wheat fields and the wind tossed the clouds to the east.
These moments on the road with Meredith, the journeys where we left memories strewn across space and time, some of them made together as a family and others made by just the two of us, are monuments whose coordinates are imprinted onto my soul. From this tripoint to the Connecticut Lakes, from Fargo, North Dakota to Roque Bluffs State Park, from the Bangor City Forest to Reykjavik, Iceland, thank you, Meredith, for getting lost with me, and making parenthood the best job I do. Your mother and I love you by heart.
Light is the only thing I think of as timeless. Traveling at nearly 300 million meters per second, the cosmic speed limit, the ideas of space and time break down for a beam of light, an oscillating collection of electric and magnetic fields that travels in straight lines without stopping until it finds a destination. The photons made in our own sun are themselves lost, bouncing around within the core until they finally escape after tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, where a tiny fraction of them are sent on a course for Earth, eight light-minutes away.
Every photon from the sun is, therefore, a gift to us, ever-trapped in the present, a song sung on a wave of fields we cannot see, traveling at a speed we will never reach. This is the nature of daylight, and where I return to my central dilemma.
In Arrival and Story of Your Life, Dr. Louise Banks poses a philosophical question that both gives me both comfort and a sense of unsettledness. She asks her future husband, upon learning that she can see her life in its entirety in space and time, the following question: “If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”
Science fiction writers like Chiang have posited this idea, that a form of timelessness is to see the order of events in your life as one might view a landscape. (Thanks, Vonnegut, for letting me borrow from Slaughterhouse-Five.) But how can one change things if the entire story is known? Does the whole story already account for my choices, my changes? Would a life bereft of my regrets and bad decisions be truly fulfilling? If I had chosen not to steal my grandmother’s egg rolls, would I feel better about myself as a human being?
Luckily, we can’t do this. We are ever-trapped in the present, an ethereal boundary between the dirt road of the past and the pavement of the future. We are ever-lost in what is happening in the here and now. To live in the present is to embrace a continuous journey, changing the future into the present into the past, from the day you are born until the day you die. What you get in return are your memories, your identity, and your sense of self. It is tempting to think your life is predetermined, and if you could see it from start to finish, it would be. But it’s not. Your life is a border marker sitting beneath a pit of sand, blackberries somewhere in the brambles, the unfolding road beneath your feet. It is living in the present that makes life mysterious, and while that is unsettling, it is also where the magic of living truly is.
The journey you have been on with me today is turning back to see part of a lifetime, a map unfolded over thirty-nine years like a landscape. I only get to see this landscape in the rearview mirror, as daylight shines on it. You know what is in your rearview mirror, but none of us truly knows what is ahead.
To quote Dr. Banks again, from the same story: “Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.” I would never trade complete knowledge of the future for a life lived in the present. I want to make my memories in the present and scatter them across space and time. I want a strong hippocampus, and places and people I know by heart.
This semester, I hope you will aim to live in the present, and to do everything that comes with it. Meet others there and embrace them. Make memories in space and time with people, and with yourself. Let the past trail behind you like a dirt road, and let the future unfold beneath your feet like pavement. Find the blackberries in the brambles, and devour them. Steal your grandmother’s egg rolls, but be careful of the chopsticks. Be where you are. Put down your phone and take in all that is happening around you. Breathe in this moment; once you do, it will always be happening at this place in space and time.
Turn off your GPS, and get lost.
As always, be good, have fun, drive safe, and stay out of trouble. Thank you so much, and have an amazing and successful second semester!