“Fling yourself…but, darling, don’t drop!”
By President Shirley H. Showalter

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Poet Julia Kasdorf, now a professor at Penn State University, returns to campus regularly to read her work, almost always to packed houses. Her poetry revolves around images and stories from her own past, including her two years at Goshen College, 1981-83.
One poem, “Flying Lesson,” has come to mind often as I prepare for three graduations – Goshen College’s 103rd commencement and two other graduations in our immediate family, including one that will turn Stuart and me into “empty nesters.” The college president in Julia’s poem is J. Lawrence Burkholder.

Flying Lesson
Over a tray of spent plates, I confessed
to the college president my plans to go East,
to New York, which I’d not really seen,
though it seemed the right place
for a sophomore as sullen and restless
as I had become on that merciless
Midwestern plain. He slowly stroked
a thick cup and described the nights
when, a theology teacher in Boston, he’d fly
a tiny plane alone out over the ocean,
each time pressing farther into the dark
until the last moment, when he’d turn
toward the coast’s bright spine, how he loved
the way the city glittered beneath him
as he glided gracefully toward it,
engine gasping, fuel needle dead on empty,
the way sweat dampened the back of his neck
when he climbed from the cockpit, giddy.
Buttoned up in my cardigan, young, willing
to lose everything, how could I see generosity
or warning? But now that I’m out here,
his advice comes so clear: fling yourself
farther, and a bit farther each time,
but darling, don’t drop.

I first read this poem through the eyes of the young persona, the “sullen and restless” sophomore who now can remember and see more clearly an early encounter with a village elder, the president. The “spent plates” and “thick cup” bespeak a kind of communion, while the slow strokes and the action of “pressing farther into the dark” suggest a chaste intimacy, the kind that happens when a secret is shared among strangers. I identified with the young woman “buttoned up” in her cardigan because I too have been young and “willing to lose everything.”
Now, of course, I see the president also. I know he is telling a story the young woman hears selectively – both in the first moment when she hears the story, and in the second telling through the poem itself. She now sees generosity and warming and finds beautiful language he never uttered, “fling yourself farther, and a bit farther each time, but darling, don’t drop.”
She sees and hears partially, and so does he.
What has changed? One thing that changed is the position of the viewer. She is “out here,” probably in the New York of her dream and no longer on that “merciless Midwestern plain.” Yet what she remembers is not the plain itself but a plain and merciful man who is suddenly profound because now she is ready to know his story and to imagine why he told it. Every college and every college president tells a story and hopes to hear one back again. As I handed diplomas to this year’s students, I was saying inwardly “fling yourself” and, simultaneously, “darling, don’t drop.” And to you alumni, parents and friends “out there” in the cities and villages of the world, think of us here as the “bright spine” of another coastline. We told you stories worth remembering. Now we want you to fly back over us. We want to glitter like fire on the plain below.

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“Flying Lesson” from Eve’s Striptease, by Julia Kasdorf, ©1998. Reprinted by permission of the University Press.

Return to June Bulletin contents
Commencement rites by Rachel Lapp
Senior profiles: Ryan Kolb, Andrea Troyer, Joel Jimenez, Lora Nafziger, Greg Stahly, Melody Bennett, Deana Landis, Alicia Montoya and Rachel Glick
How Julia Kasdorf changed my life by Daniel Shank Cruz
Mennonite by choice by Joni S. Sancken ’98
A lifetime in family business: What I’ve learned by Leonard Geiser ’57 with Rachel Lapp
Allon H. Lefever by Ryan Miller

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