Friday, June 6, 2014

Brook Road Academy Commencement Speech, June 2014

First of all, thank you so much for asking me to be here today. I consider the opportunity to speak to a class of graduating seniors who have managed to survive the entire length of high school, along with the parents and teachers and staff who have survived along with them, right up there with speaking to Oprah or God.

Thinking back on my own graduation, I honestly can’t remember if there was a speaker or not. I can’t remember what it felt like to walk across a stage or receive my diploma. I do remember the same feeling of relief that comes after finishing a very, very, very long book. I remember that I finally knew more than my mother and that I had at last achieved immortality. I remember believing with conviction that some combination of a new hair color (purple, red or Mountain Dew) and getting as far away from home as possible would turn me into the person I’d always wanted to become.

I was halfway right. Dying your hair the color of Mountain Dew does change everything.

Of course, what I wanted to change was the world but I did not yet know how to really change myself. Even then, however, I knew what I loved—words and stories—and like the oil that kept the temple fire burning much longer than it should have, that little fire stayed alive inside of me too, despite all the things I did that could have put it out. And we’re not talking a little drip here, but full-on fire extinguishers. I know you guys are all perfect angels, but I was rebellious and experimental. What would I have wanted someone to tell me at my own high school graduation? What could I have heard?

I could have heard that it was going to get better and that the people who had told me that the high school years were the best of my life were lying. You are about to graduate. And I mean it when I say congratulations. This is no small accomplishment. It appears that Brook Road Academy is an excellent school with the finest teachers around, but please, don’t believe anyone who tells you that at 17 and 18 you have already reached the pinnacle of your life and that it’s all a slow miserable decline from here. You have not lived out your glory years which will end this week with your coursework. While I hope that this has been a challenging fulfilling time in your life, your best years, I believe, are yet to come.

When I was in elementary school I played a game with my girlfriends called “Fresh Out of College.”  In our elaborate game of make-believe, we had perfect jobs, perfect boyfriends and perfect hair because, guess what? Once we had that degree we would live happily ever after, amen.  

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way, like so many other people I know that receiving a piece of paper, no matter which one it is you have set your sights on-- a high school diploma or a college or graduate or masters degree or a driver’s license and registration or the deed to a home or a marriage license or a birth certificate—none of these are a guarantee for happiness. Buddha, Jesus, God, Krishna and the Tooth Fairy won’t come down and sign a lifetime-of-bliss warrantee on the dotted line. Your high school diplomas are wonderful landmarks on the maps of your life, but they are not the final destination. In fact, I have found there is no destination on any map or any other piece of paper that can tell me whether or not I have really, finally, actually arrived, although recently having my face made into a shrinky dink and hung in an art show that took place in a local bathroom did come close.

When I was 23, I came home to Richmond after travelling through New York, Italy, Colorado, Arkansas and Alaska. I was nearly broke and felt broken. So far I had successfully used my expensive liberal arts degree to wait tables, scrub toilets and vacuum hairballs out of hallways. I was a failure.

It was a beautiful spring day but I sobbed into my pillow with my mom and my cat Felecia at my side. “Mom,” I wailed. “I have no money! I can’t get a job! I am the biggest loser in the whole entire history of the world!”

“Honey,” my mom said back. “Look at Felecia.” My cat purred next to me like an Egyptian Queen, licking luxuriantly between each of her outstretched toes. “Does she have a job? How much money is in her bank account?

“None,” I had to admit. Felecia yawned up at us and then settled in for a cat-nap. I had to admit, being so divine day after day must have been absolutely exhausting.

“That’s right,” said my mother. “She makes no money and spends her day doing next to nothing. And she’s perfect just the way she is. You are a human being, honey, not a human doing.” And then my mother went on to tell me, as she had before, that my worth was not determined by how much money I made or the line items on my resume. And for some reason on this day I was finally able to hear her.

Learning to believe that I’m OK just as I am, that I’m not the sum of a list of numbers or grades---that I can trust and love myself no matter what kind of job or money or friends or clothes or car or husband I have---has been, I think, some of the biggest ongoing work of my lifetime. It’s inner work, work that is hard to see or measure or evaluate or grade. But it’s this inner work that has allowed the outer work to happen.

What I do has begun to come into alignment with who I am, but this did not happen because the road was straight and smoothly paved and I drove a cherry-red two door Dodge Challenger. Driving five hundred dollar Hondas with no windshield wipers, misreading directions, stumbling out of the car and scraping my knees on the pavement, flat tires, construction zones, speeding tickets, high tolls, traffic jams and even traffic court and driving school have all been elements my path has been made of. I’ve been rejected from schools and literary magazines, laid off and passed over for jobs I thought I had to have.

But as Samuel Beckett famously wrote: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."  

Accepting my failures, leaning into my weaknesses, learning from my mistakes, and taking the circuitous, bumpy route, it turns out, has been the charted course towards a life beyond my wildest dreams, one which is truly beginning to happen, thorns and warts and fender benders and all.

I am now lucky enough to have a job where I spend my days listening to other people tell their stories while also having the opportunity to write my own. I have come to believe that the power of sharing who you are, whether that manifests as a poem or a song or a letter or a garden or a meal or an invention or an equation or a computer program is a better gift to the world than a stack of credentials behind your name or the total dollar amount in your 401K. 

I would like to share with you now a poem that says so beautifully things I want to know that I’m still inclined to forget.

Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

So, right now, whether you are going to on to a big college or a little college or no college at all, whether you are interested in words, stories, social justice, animals, science, the environment, documentaries, car engines, mechanics, computer engineering, video games, internet privacy, censorship, Africa or Kling-on, whether you intend to wear a blue collar or a white one, to work with your head or your hands, I hope you learn to make the big decisions with your heart. And I hope you know, as hard as it is to believe, that each of you right now are just as perfect as my cat Felecia.

The best years of your life are not over. Your story doesn’t end when you walk out of these doors. This chapter simply must close to make way for the next. May your best years be yet to come, may the force be with you, and good luck.

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