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14 August 2006

Don't graduate

“Learn as if you were going to live forever. Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.”  -Mahatma Gandhi

GraduationWell, as unimaginable as it might seem, yet once more, no one called to ask me to deliver a profoundly moving, yet delightfully witty and somewhat intellectually stimulating commencement address at their college, high school, pre-school, cake-decorating symposium or auto shop training program.

I kept thinking it might happen, but now that August has rolled around and school is gearing up to start in a few short days, I’ve had to face the unthinkable: I think we’re beyond graduation season now, the phone isn’t going to ring, is it? I’m not going to get to wear a big, hot robe and a fantastically odd medieval hat that looks surprisingly like a homage to my hero, the fabulously polyhedral Paolo Uccello. How utterly and deeply disappointing.

But no, I’m not going to wait for someone to pick up the phone and beg me to come bestow wisdom on folks who’ve just mortgaged their future in education loans: I’ll just go ahead and write my little commencement speech so I’ll have it when they come to their senses. Or, to appear less needy, I’ll write it now to commemorate Emma’s entry into the halls of high school this Wednesday, her own commencement of sorts. I can dust it off again when she graduates in four short years and then when I’m 95 and her little sister graduates. There’s nothing quite like raising one child in the class of 2010 and one in the class of 2021. That’s TWENTY TWENTY-ONE. Get me a glass of cool water, I’m feeling faint at the very calculation of it.

I think I’ll call my commencement address “Don’t graduate.”

I wish I could take credit for the title, but the idea for it comes from my favorite poet, the fantabulous Billy Collins and, by the way, if anyone reading this knows him and could introduce me, that would be swell, as I believe I might have mentioned once or several dozen times before. He spoke at The College of the Holy Cross commencement a few years back and admonished those lucky and very sharp looking graduates to keep on learning. I think I’ll do the same. Here goes a draft of my audition speech. Should it be of interest to any of you who might be planning commencements, do send a note to my agent posthaste. You know how calendars fill up when Spring springs.

Dear Graduates and all those gray-haired people who have supported you and sent you boxes of cash for a long four (or five or six?) years:

Shazzam, what a fine looking bunch!

You really do look fantastic, perched there on your chairs in those funny hats and hot robes, like sweaty medieval royalty, tasseled and combed and just about to burst with possibility, you patrons, Medicis of our common future. I know from experience that you’re just aching to get your diploma in hand, throw that hat in the air, and hit the post-diploma debauchery parties—and I learned a long time ago never to compete with food or drink or long goodbyes to people who, it’s true, will never exist in your life in quite the same way again. So, I see my job as one of inspirational brevity; I’ll make this short in hopes that you will remember this simple message long after the tears and smiles of today are gone, gone.

Even as fine as you look, all scrubbed up, and even as smart and athletic and funny and kind and musical and self-conscious and ever so slightly prone to peer pressure as you are now, you are only a teeny, tiny portion of the human being you will become in the years ahead.

Imagine that! You are so powerful now—how could you ever be more so? And yet, the years that lie ahead of you will soon lie inside you: your job is to eat them up with the biggest spoon and greatest gusto you can, to flavor them with the sights and sounds of the whole world, to savor them like a long five-course lunch in Paris with your friend, Camille Bony, who runs the Paris Metro System and looks suspiciously like Peter Sellers, or someone quite like Monsieur Bony who makes you laugh and delights you with his fantastic accent. Your days should ring with the tinking of glasses marking the toasts you will make to all those fantastic people around you. How will this big feast occur? By doing just three simple things: Remember Delores, dig a $10 hole, and always carry a 3x5 card.

Remember Delores

TypesetterYou might forget the name of the guy who sat next to you in Sheridan Simon’s physics lab or the woman who taught you about Yeats and Eliot and all those wacky poets or the tortured philosophy major who lived down the hall from you and kept quoting Buber’s “I and Thou” at inopportune times, but even if you forget all those names, I want you to remember Delores.

I used to work with Delores. She was the typesetter in our organization. For those who have just cocked their head to one side because they have no idea what a typesetter is, Delores created printed brochures and other materials for our organization. Her job title might provide the first clue that this story took place some time ago, around about the time Eminem was in first grade, perhaps.

Because Delores was the typesetter, she spent her time typesetting. She was near the bottom of the organization chart, that lovely, neat little visual tree that places people in relation to one another in any group, an undeniable and detrimental hierarchy of human-created worth.

When we had staff meetings, task forces, or training programs, Delores wasn’t involved, usually, because she was busy typesetting. We didn’t ask Delores to serve on committees because she wasn’t a manager or a director or anything important in the organization. She didn’t go to our conferences or sit on task forces to solve problems. She was just a typesetter.

One day, Delores dropped dead of a heart attack. She was 53 years old. We were shocked.

At her funeral, fourteen gospel choirs in beautiful robes sailed down the aisles of the Alfred Street Baptist Church and sang as part of the service. There were choirs of pre-schoolers right up to retired people. It was beautifully chilling, moving, heart-rending music. How nice of them to come! I thought to myself. How amazing that the preacher had been able to call in all those choir members for the funeral! It was spectacular music, each choir’s voice filling the church, surrounding us, their swaying choir robes punctuating the rhythms.

As the preacher began the eulogy, I found out why they had all come to sing one last time for Delores: she had started and led each of those choirs, some for over 20 years.

I sat still with that information for a moment, then turned to a colleague near me and said quietly, “I never even knew she sang. I worked with her for 10 years and never even knew she sang.” There was a human loss: I realized that I had not held her up in the world as a human with the same loves and losses, the same dreams and cares as I. That realization made me quiet for quite some time afterwards.

I also realized another loss. What passions and skills did Delores have that we ignored because we put her in a tiny box labeled “typesetter”? She was a leader, with great organizational and artistic and motivational skills. She was far more a leader than I. A slave to the organization chart, we had never considered her anything more than a typesetter, but she was so much more. She was a human being.

It was one of the greatest lessons of my life, this loss, this lack, the dehumanization and boxing.

As so, as you leave here, remember Delores. She is all around you. She is the janitor in your dorm. The kids you will teach and perhaps raise in your own family, the bosses you will complain about, the homeless man on the street—all are Delores. And so are each of you. We all are. Don’t fall prey to believing organization charts and operating as if they were real. Remember Delores.

Dig a $10 hole

Zinnia_yellowI planted approximately 1,000 zinnia seeds and 38 anemone bulbs weeks ago. Yesterday, one zinnia bloomed, the sole surviving plant in that tribe, a gorgeous yellow zinnia. I have named it Polly.

The zinnia is one of my favorite flowers, along with gerber daisies. I like sturdy, bright flowers in the garden and am a great admirer of gardens that look wild and full of color; I’ve never had one myself. Mostly, I’m appreciative of any flower that actually blooms, since I don’t have a great track record in that regard.

One of the reasons we bought our house, in fact, was the back garden. Divided into three sections, each resplendent with flowered glory, we killed most of it in our first season there. I learned two things from that experience: when growing anything—a garden, a friendship, a relationship, a coalition, a business—you pretty much have to look at the plants everyday. And nourishment is an ongoing necessity, each flower needing something particular to itself. As my friend Richard in New Zealand says from his vineyard, “The plants tell you things, so long as you have the eyes to see what they're saying and the knowledge to understand it. The soil, similarly, sends out messages.”

My friend Lee is the consummate gardener; roses are her specialty. She has hundreds of roses in her yard and knows each of them well—their names, their cycles, their preferred way of being in the world. What’s her secret? Gardening, she says, isn’t about the seed. No. Everyone thinks it’s about buying the best seed, the best bulb, the best plant. But gardening is really about the hole. Gardening involves putting a 10-cent plant into a 10-dollar hole: it’s the preparation of the soil that matters.

It’s a metaphor for life, isn’t it? Dig a $10 hole before you start plopping 10-cent plants into the ground. Create the conditions for growth by tending the soil before grafting people into your organization or family or life. Dig a $10 hole.

Always carry a 3x5 card

Globe_index_card_box_insideSome of my best thinking happens in the car, that bubble of solitude. So it was no surprise last Thursday when, on my way to pick up my dry-cleaning, I had an amazing epiphany, a spark of inspiration for the most amazing, deep, self-revelatory essay ever. It hit me like a bolt, a sudden recognition after which words flowed in my head like fine wine, circling, improving themselves, connecting in wise and wonderful ways. It was "flow" as my friend Chick-Sent-Uh-Muh-High-Lee says, a transcendent experience between French Broad Street and Haywood at 35 miles an hour. Not only the idea of an essay, but the whole thing--words and all!--completely formed in my mind.

When I got home after picking up the cleaning, copying an article at Kinko's, stopping at Malaprop’s bookshop, getting groceries, plotting revenge at a driver who cut me off at a light, and picking up my daughter, Tess, the whole thing was gone. Not a clue. Not one iota of remembrance of that fully formed essay, not even a hint of its focus. Lost in the molecules of sky around me, gone. Irrevocably gone. And it is this experience that drives this challenge to always carry a 3x5 card. I can see the knowing look in your eyes—but I’m younger than I look, damn it, and this has nothing to do with having a “senior moment.” Capture what you are thinking about, what you care about, what you question--write it down, those fleeting thoughts, those bare ideas, those fully formed thoughts, those snippets of conversation that occur in line at the bagel shop.

They will serve you well, those index cards. They may bear the germ of the big idea in your life, but you’ll never know if you don’t capture them. And carrying a 3x5 card to gather snippets of life means that you don’t ever really graduate, because you are always looking, seeking, wanting something to write down—you are always learning. Always carry a 3x5 card.

Now get out of here and get a real job and pay your parents back for all that book money you spent on beer, but take Delores, a zinnia, and an index card with you and create the life only you can create, make yourself proud to be you, love and share every single bit of your fabulous self.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Mark_twain_in_academic_robeAs Mark Twain said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Whatever you do in this life of yours—no matter how far you roam, what characters you pick up along the way—don’t ever graduate.

To ensure that you don’t ever stop learning, always, always, always carry a fountain pen (or some desperately insufficient alternative) and a 3x5 index card in your back pocket so you can write stuff down—snippets of conversation, books that you must remember to read, big and tiny thoughts you have every moment of every day, the phone numbers of interesting, complex, and slightly insane people that you meet. Always carry this with you, no exceptions. I don’t want to catch you in the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket without them.

Whatever you become—an astronaut, a seamstress, a parent, a librarian, a potter, a banker, a teacher, a mayor—just keep right on learning. You should always, always play hooky to see the sunset and go to poetry readings and art openings to support people who are creating things in the world. Remember Delores. Dig a $10 hole. Carry a 3x5 card.

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Wish we could have you speak at one of our commencements. Unfortunately, I'm not the one who does the inviting. [She muttered under her breath as she toddled down the hall to The Pres's office...]

By the way, for his little 3x5 card, my husband uses his little voice recorder, which is ALWAYS with him. I should get a clue.

ABsolutely, POSitively your best post yet. BRILLIANT! Bravo. Encore. Encore. Encore.
I am sending your link to EVERYone I know.
thank you.

ABsolutely, POSitively your best post yet. BRILLIANT! Bravo. Encore. Encore. Encore.
I am sending your link to EVERYone I know.
thank you.

Just when I think you can't outdo do. I don't know how you continue to come up with these essays that make me smile AND tear up by the time I've reached the end. Sharing this with some of my teacher pals...stat. THANK YOU.

this is just incredible. thanks for writing. thanks for sharing.

Maybe my pockets are smaller than most but business cards will serve the purpose of the 3x5 cards. It also forces you to be succinct in what you write, i.e. not much space to elaborate. But the pen is the key, I have found myself with cards and without a pen and the thought (or train of thoughts) just evaporates into the atmosphere. If they at least would work like moisture in clouds, I could travel to the next spot where the cloud would drop their load, but alas... they just go away.

Thanks for sharing, I had two of the three and now feel complete, having learned something today in the process. As the tag line of my newest venture reads: "commencement begins every day".

Your writing makes my day. Thanks so much.

What an amazing essay, so full of passion and wisdom! I agree with the other, one of your best posts yet.

I will remember this post, much longer than any other commencement speech I've ever heard. Thank you.
(My girls are nine years apart - I'm happy to report that there is life after childrearing:)

Awesome, Patti! Don't be surprised if you get overbooked as a key note commencement speaker for 2007 graduations! How vital it is for humanity to hear these words, take them to heart, and with any luck, actually live them. Thanks for another great post; you are an inspiration!

Delightful stuff.

And I'm with you on the Billy Collins love. FYI: he's a regular at the Dodge Poetry Festival that is held in NJ every two years. It's coming up at the end of September and he's presenting Friday, Saturday and Sunday ... might be worth coming!

This posting was nominated by moi for the 100Bloggers Carnival in the most inspirational category.

All Carnival nominees:

and here (to also cast a vote):

Good luck!

Patti - Your post WON for best motivational/inspirational post! Congratulations! You win an autographed copy of my book. Please send me your address when you get a moment, and I'll send it off right away.

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