Choosing a Metaphor
How do you go about it?
I have a difficult time saying goodbye to every graduating class, but some years are particularly difficult. This year, there is such a wonderful and large cohort of creative writing and English majors graduating from my department, students who have done nothing but impress me over their four years. They’ve kept our literary magazine alive through three pandemic issues, including 2020, when layout had to be done even as everyone was frantically packing to go home in mid-March, uncertain of when we’d be back. I wasn’t the advisor then—all that credit goes to a recently retired colleague—but they’ve carried on through two more (including the most recent disruption: a ransomware attack on our printer). They’ve been standouts in the classroom and out of it, serving as mentors to our incoming students and generally filling our department lounge with smart, interesting conversations and an overwhelming sense of kindness and welcome. I am going to be a bit of a wreck at Saturday’s commencement ceremony; I was already a bit of a wreck at last week’s Lavender Graduation, where I had the honor and privilege of being the student-selected speaker. (I did not, however, actively cry while giving my speech, which was the first time I managed that, despite half a dozen practice runs.).
If you don’t know what a Lavender Graduation ceremony is, here is the origin story, courtesy of HRC:
Lavender Graduation is an annual ceremony conducted on numerous campuses to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and ally students and to acknowledge their achievements and contributions to the University. The Lavender Graduation Ceremony was created by Dr. Ronni Sanlo, a Jewish lesbian, who was denied the opportunity to attend the graduations of her biological children because of her sexual orientation. It was through this experience that she came to understand the pain felt by her students. Encouraged by the Dean of Students at the University of Michigan, Dr. Sanlo designed the first Lavender Graduation Ceremony in 1995.
I admit to agonizing over this speech for a long time, though not for the most expected reasons; for someone who’s a pretty staunch introvert, I actually quite like public speaking. The issue was that I wanted to say something real. During a span of ceremonies and well-wishes that are absolutely heartfelt but well-traveled—only so many ways to say congratulations, we are so proud of you, after all—I wanted to offer something at least a little bit different for this particular group of students who have been so instrumental in my sense of community on campus.
To do that, I turned to metaphor: a meditation on cycling, specifically the idea of bike fit and the people who helped me understand how important that is in order to feel comfortable as a cyclist as a proxy for identity and community in queer spaces. My relationship to cycling is new, good for some very merited laughs as I’m doing a fair bit of bumbling in the process. And because it is new, because it is an entirely different way of understanding myself (after 39.5 years of thinking of myself as a non-cyclist), I found it to work as an analogue for understanding one’s sexuality, gender identity, and gender presentation. Having friends, mentors, and role models makes finding one’s way easier in both.
The particular metaphor I chose, though, is less the point than thinking about ways in which metaphors work. A truly startling and impressionistic metaphor is a thing of beauty, one that delivers feeling like a thunderbolt directly under the ribs, but a metaphor with some mechanical truth in it appeals to my sense of making.
This is why I love textile metaphors so much; thrilling shades of nuance come from understanding them whole cloth. Knitting, for example, in its basic sense, is made with a single continuous strand formed into interlocking structures via the needles and the way they manipulate the loops formed by throwing or picking the yarn. Find and pull an unsecured end or a broken strand in a piece of knitting and you’ll either undo the knitting altogether or pull the piece into a terrible bunch. Weaving, on the other hand, barring any wrapping techniques like Danish medallions or Brooks bouquet, is a series of intersections of what are functionally individual strings, one strand over, one strand under. Find an unsecured thread in a piece of weaving and pull, and you’re likely to be able to slip the whole thread free. In both cases, water, heat, and agitation—external pressures—can change the resultant fabric radically. In both cases, those external pressures (one or all) are necessary to finishing the cloth into something ready to be used. I can think of at least four circumstances right now that would lend themselves to one of these metaphors but not necessarily both because they are quite different things.
(I almost used weaving as the anchoring metaphor for my Lavender Graduation speech, but I don’t have as many weaving jokes to make at my own expense.)
What do you look for in a metaphor you truly love?
What I’m making: A small seasonal treasure: violet syrup. Go outside and pick as many violets as you can. Then, pluck the violet petals from the calyx (for best color) and put the petals into a big measuring cup. Take note of the volume of the violet petals. Pour an equal volume of boiling water over the petals and let steep at room temperature for a day. Then strain the liquid from the petals (a coffee filter in a regular strainer works well) into a heatproof bowl. Add a volume of white granulated sugar equal to the amount of water, and then heat the sugar with the violet liquid over a double-boiler until the sugar is totally dissolved. The goal is to avoid boiling the syrup, so stir the sugar in as the liquid heats and take it off when all of the sugar is dissolved. The syrup will retain its blue hue (it may even tinge more blue-green than blue-purple and that’s okay) until it meets something acidic, at which point it will become purple-pink, so it makes for a really festive (and delicious) addition to lemonade or a gin & tonic or just sparkling water.
A note on the recipe: it’s not really a recipe. You can use this method with basically anything you want to make an infusion of. Using more petals to water gives you a more intense color. No matter what, the flavor will be incredibly delicate, which is why white sugar, with its relative lack of flavor (as compared to honey or any other sweetener), is ideal. The high sugar content—basically a simple syrup—means this will keep well in the refrigerator.
My yard violets are in shorter supply than usual, perhaps due to the massive rainfall we had over the weekend, and there’s been an expansion of the poison ivy into one of my favorite patches. Fingers crossed that after a sunny week I can make another batch before summer’s heat melts these perfect little flowers.
What I’m reading: The Clothing of the Renaissance World: Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas: Cesare Vecellio's Habiti Antichi et Moderni. This is for research and it’s so cool. Thanks, library!
What I’m writing: In my most recent essay for the Ploughshares blog, I had the privilege to get an early look at Hernan Diaz’s new novel, Trust. Alert: The essay does give away the novel’s ending, so be aware of that. It’s not a review, but rather a consideration of the effect of narrative distance and style on authority/perceived authority within the reading experience.
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