Freshman Address: by Yale College Dean Mary E. Miller

Mary E. Miller, Dean of Yale College, addressed the Class of 2013 August 29th in Woolsey Hall.

Freshman Address

Good morning! Good morning President Levin, Provost Salovey, Vice President and Secretary Lorimer, Dean Butler, Chaplain Kugler, Masters, Deans, and honored guests. And welcome, women and men of the Class of 2013! Welcome to Yale University, and welcome to Yale College. I’m—we’re– so excited to have you here. We’ve been thinking about you since April 1, when Dean Brenzel of Yale Admissions told us your names. Then we met some of you during Bulldog Days, we met a few more of you this week in orientation programs, but at last, Class of 2013, you are here. Welcome inside the walls, onto the playing fields, into the classrooms and the residential colleges—welcome. Welcome to the spaces and places you will soon call home.

And welcome to all of the families and friends who have brought you to this day. You’ve come from Ghana and New Haven, from California and China, from Berkeley, Brookline, and Brooklyn. Thanks for having helped 1307 of the world’s most interesting and smartest young women and men find their way to today. We are going to have exceptional encounters with them over the next years—in the classroom, in the dining halls, on the intramural courts, in extracurricular activities. Let me add that we plan to have plenty of fun along the way.

But 2013: back to you.

You’ve just arrived, and the last thing on your mind is that you’re running out of time. However, if you were in a movie theater in the past few months, you probably saw the trailer for the movie 2012, which purports to portend the end of the world via the end of the Maya calendar, in late December 2012. You don’t have to be clairvoyant to figure out that you’ll be seniors, and for better or worse, you’ll be on vacation when this happens. Between now and then, there will be much more hoopla, so we will have plenty of time to argue about the Gregorian and Julian correlation of that date. But it’s late December 2012 when the Maya date of 13.0.0.0.0 will roll around, no matter what.

But what do we really know about this Maya end date? Well, I am a scholar of Mesoamerica, roughly ancient Mexico & Guatemala. So here’s how the Maya calendar works, and here’s what we know: the calendar ticks off days, one by one, marking them off using five places, right to left, each of which fills up at 20—rather than our 10—and holding the place with the equivalent of zero. Back in 3114 BC (according to our calendar), that is to say over 5000 years ago, the Maya calendar rolled over—its places all filled up, like the places in your car’s odometer—and as some of you know from first-hand experience, if someone in your family has a vehicle from before you were born, before air bags, when odometers had only five places. But the fifth Maya place from the right—the largest number, just like that odometer—fills at 13, a sacred and fortunate number—and it is this date, 13.0.0.0.0, that will fall within your college career—and the next day after it will be 0.0.0.0.1. New places could be added, allowing an ever-expanding system.

These are just numbers, abstractions that measure time but don’t tell us much about time’s meaning. All the peoples of ancient Mexico charted time—the Aztecs, for example, chronicled global and cosmic time: they believed that they lived in the era of the Fifth Sun, and that the solar body had been destroyed in four previous cataclysms that ranged from floods to hurricanes to volcanic eruptions—exactly the environmental perils of the Valley of Mexico. Their Fifth Sun was to end in earthquakes, but it ended instead with the invasion by the Spanish in 1519. But of all peoples of the ancient New World, none attended to time with as much precision as the ancient Maya, who charted cycles of Venus, Jupiter, and more, alongside the obvious cycles of sun, moon, and who multiplied 13 x 9 x 7 to yield an abstract cycle of 819 days—they calendared both the seen and the unseen. They counted all these calendars carefully, charting both past and future—hence the calculations that add up to 13.0.0.0.0, a line up that must have looked like Las Vegas lemons in the prospect. But in between past and future, the Maya also treated something much more subtle, and this is the problem of NOW.

N-O-W. Oops, it’s gone. How do we capture now, which flows like water through our fingers and toes, as Heraclitus noted c. 500 BC, when he stated that we cannot step in the same river twice? How do we interpose ourselves in the breath that lies between our past and our future? Philosophers have wrestled with this problem for over 2500 years—a problem for Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and dozens of others. Virginia Woolf made the moment unfold in what feels like real time, as we read her lines in the mind of Mrs. Ramsay, at the end of a perfect dinner party: ‘With her foot on the threshold she waited a moment longer in a scene which was vanishing even as she looked, and then, as she moved and took Minta’s arm and left the room, it changed, it shaped itself differently; it had become, she knew, giving one last look at it over her shoulder, already the past.’

Not surprisingly, given their fine-grained relationship with the details of time, the Maya particularly addressed this through their works of art, and by making the viewer in many cases a participant in the work itself. I’ve included three drawings here—they are a set of lintels: that is, carved stone slabs that spanned the tops of three small doorways of a small building at Bonampak, Mexico. From left to right, the scene progresses: a fallen captive is increasingly driven to the ground, stripped of finery and seemingly doomed; but a date is recorded in each one of the panels and time runs the other direction, from right to left—revealing to us the ease of reading backwards and forwards in Maya books; the step-by-step collapse creates an ancient analogue to the modern flipbook. In this, the Maya artist shows us his ability to break down imagery, frame-by-frame, breath-by-breath, as if the Maya mastery of periods of time extending far beyond a human lifespan also allows the artist to slow time down, so that the instant can be grasped. Time unfolds and then closes, as if the artist can capture the experience of time and space within the blink of the human eye. Yet this blink is not brief, but expanded, extended, in ways that modern time has come to think of as cinematic. Here we learn that the attempt to capture the perception of time and the image has a deep past in Greek art, in Renaissance art, in art made around the world: in fact, I would argue that frame by frame is one of the ways that humans capture images and play them back in their minds. Little wonder that it is something that the Maya—literate, literary, and engaged with numbers—would seek to render.

Which brings us back to now. And your now. I could measure out your time formulaically, in semesters, summers, even the numbers of courses. But I want to think about this now. I hope I’ve made you confident that you will enjoy your winter vacation in 2012, without recourse to the apocalyptic, eschatatological panic that seems to lurch from one unfounded moment—Y2K, anyone?—to the next. But if the future is the goal and the past is the lesson, then the moment of now so easily slips away. Here’s my advice: don’t let it! This is your now. And you may have thought (do you hear that past tense?) that you would follow a particular major at Yale; some of the people who are here to support you today or who have made it possible for you to be here may also have expectations about your days here—about a particular future, in a particular profession. But Yale is indeed a river that is never the same river twice: you will make choices that are very much in the moment, choices that lead you to pathways you could not anticipate: when you step in the river, you may want to follow it to the sea or go upstream to the sources; you may want to travel backwards and forwards in time, to engage in discovery that no one could anticipate. That’s what we hope. And if your focus is on the future, then you might miss this moment, the next moment, the course that just seemed like an interesting possibility. Use your peripheral vision: listen to your passions, drill into the unexpected. Because you are not running out of time.

Two years from now, in 2011, many of you will have your first adult time perception problem: the two years that remain will seem shorter than the two years past. If this doesn’t make sense to you, just ask your parents: time does speed up in life—it’s related to the length of life you’ve lived, so that every addition is a smaller percentage increase—and psychologists study this sort of time perception right across the street from where are sitting today. Most freshmen just haven’t hit it yet. When you do, that fulcrum of before and after may make it difficult to stay in the now. But you can help keep the now in the moment by going abroad, by living an experience so different that time starts afresh, that the very fact that you are working to master a language, a culture, a city, takes time and keeps you present tense.

Perhaps what this popular attention to the Maya calendar helps us gain is a better understanding of our own measurements of time, layered as they also are with multiple calendars. We live with a solar calendar dependent on an orientation to east and the annual solstices and equinoxes but rarely know the directions of things on the Yale campus (hint: science hill is roughly NORTH); the lunar calendar reminds us of its particular chronicle of time, through Ramadan on the one hand, the Islamic holy month of fasting and celebration underway right now, and the Jewish High Holidays, always a feature of Yale’s fall semester. Did you know that the seemingly capricious roaming of Easter through March and April led English-speaking Catholic and Protestant leadership to plan in 1940 to set Easter once and for all as the second Sunday in April? But of course, other events interceded.

The Maya calendar both cycles and moves forward, much like the major calendars of the rest of the world. The calendar isn’t coming to a close, you see—it will move ahead, as do the others, days ticking forward. Your days: you have roughly 1,370. That’s a lot of now. Relish it. Savor it.

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