Author/Poet Offers Graduates Life Advice

May 3, 2013

Thousands graduate from South Dakota colleges in May, and some of them walk across the stage to receive their diplomas this weekend. Graduates at one state school host an acclaimed author for their commencement. Kathleen Norris writes non-fiction, and she’s published seven books of poetry. 

This week, a freelance writer and poet tours sights on South Dakota State University’s campus. Kathleen Norris prepares for her commencement address. The title is “Refusing to Live on an Island.”

Norris knows something about islands. She grew up in Hawaii, and, for this graduation, she travels to South Dakota from her home in Honolulu. Norris says the tropical paradise has something in common with the lands of the Great Plains.

"South Dakota’s fairly isolated in America; it takes a while to get there," Norris says. "Well, the Hawaiian Island chain is the most isolated island chain on Earth. It takes a long time to get there, and people can have that same island mentality where that little part of the world is everything. They don’t really want to look beyond."

Her message to students is to eliminate the blinders that narrow their worlds. Norris says thinking of your job or your family or your current surroundings as the extent of all there is to experience does a disservice to yourself and the rest of the world. She draws from her first-hand life experience

"I’ve lived on islands most of my life. The island of Lemmon, South Dakota, surrounded by a sea of grass. The island of Manhattan right after college, which, New York City. People in New York City can be very, very provincial in terms of not looking beyond New York for anything, and there is a lot in New York. There’s a lot available to you, but it is not the center of the universe," Norris says.

That’s right. Trace it backwards. Norris grew up in Hawaii, lived in New York City after college and wound up spending more than two decades in the Rushmore State.

Norris says she never actually expected to live in South Dakota, but her mother inherited a house and farmland in Perkins County when her grandparents died.

"She had to decide what she wanted to do, and my husband and I were just young writers," Norris says. "We didn’t know any better, and we said, oh we’ll just go out there and we’ll stay for awhile until you figure out if you want to sell everything or what you want to do."

Staying for awhile turned into 25 years living in Lemmon, South Dakota. She laughs now about how she saw only two months a year without something frozen falling from the sky. She embraces her South Dakota connection, even in the Big Apple, when a cashier noticed her hometown.

"And I was buying a book, because I was taking a train ride somewhere. And the clerk looked at me and said, “Lemmon, South Dakota!” really loud so everyone in the store could hear it, ‘Do you know any North Dakota jokes?” And the friend who was with me who was from New York said, ‘What did he say?’ and I told him one of my favorite North Dakota jokes. But I thought, there you were in Penn station, and he saw the name South Dakota and immediately, ‘Do you know any North Dakota jokes?’ So I thought that was cool.

Norris remembers the joke.

"What's the motto of the North Dakota workers union?" she asks. "Every man for himself."

She jokes, but Norris says that’s just not how people today live: isolated and autonomous. Her many homes offer her varied perspectives of the world. She’s establishing archives of decades of work at South Dakota State University, and Norris’ travels inspire the main message she communicates through books and poems: that your world isn’t yours; rather, it’s part of a greater existence.

"I try to write for a broad audience. I wrote a book called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith that is specifically about the Christian vocabulary, but I wrote it intending for, say, a Hindu or a Muslim to pick it up and say, ‘Oh, that’s what Christians mean by that word,’" Norris says. "It wasn’t a book for Christians only; it was for anyone who was interested in the Christian faith to learn more about it."

Setting up homes in communities around the world is one way people can expand their perspectives, but Norris says people don’t have to live anywhere but their hometowns. However, she encourages people to watch films from other countries, read writings from people of different backgrounds, and seek news from around the world written in nations far away.

"It's a very big world, and we need to sort of keep our eyes open to what is around us and refuse to live on an island," Norris says. "You’re sending graduates out in to the world, and they really need to inhabit the larger world. They’ll need roots in a family or a church or a town or something. They’ll need roots. They’ll have to be grounded somewhere, but not to have that island mentality, I think, is important."

With new technologies and constant information, Norris hopes these graduates take note of their ever-changing world and embrace all facets of it far beyond the Great Plains, no matter where their journeys lead.