Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life is the dull bits--savor them.

As my school gets ready to celebrate and say good-bye to another senior class (seven of them this year), I found myself looking at old commencement speeches that I've given to honor my former advisees.  Having spent four years as their humanities teacher and advisor, it's always a challenge to summon both advice and final words that express how much they mean to me.  I decided to share this one that I wrote a couple years ago.  I like the message about writing and about life.  Here it is, almost as I read it on a hot day in June of 2013:

There’s a part of me that couldn’t wait to get up here and tell this group how much I love them and how I miss them already.  And yet part of me dreaded this; standing in a sweltering room, in front of hundreds of people, trying to say something meaningful—while trying not to cry--is a profound challenge.  

But now that I’m here, there’s no where else I’d rather be (kind of like when I leaped off that waterfall in the Dominican Republic with you all—I felt dread mingled with elation).

I admit to struggling with how to start this speech.  So I took some advice I give my students, which I shamelessly stole from composer John Cage.  He (and now, I) say:  “Begin Anywhere.” 

So, I’m going to begin by describing my writing process for this speech.  I started it many months ago during my daughter’s college orientation.  I scribbled a thought inspired by an effective speaker who welcomed us, the nervous parents. That scribble was the kernel. Then months later, I looked at what I had written, but it didn’t really inspire a speech.

I tried again: Memorial Day weekend, I sat at a friend’s kitchen counter as he prepared an omelette and I sipped coffee.  I scribbled down a few bits and pieces.  Then I went outside and scrubbed every inch of my car—inside and out. Still waiting for it to to come to me.

A few days later, listening to the same Tom Petty song over and over, I wrote a few bits in my head, hoping that it would be as brilliant as it seemed to be before it was on paper (it wasn’t really).  Eventually, I put all those bits and pieces together  (and deleted quite a few more), and it seemed that I had some semblance of a speech. 

That was when I realized that the writing process is a lot like life: We write –and live—in bits and pieces.  Layered together, sometimes with grace, sometimes with purpose and preparation, and sometimes not so much.  Each process also gets a little messy at times.  Anne Lamott wisely said, “we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here.”  So make a mess.  But that’s also when you have to have a little faith that you will get it where you want it to be.  Just keep going.  Begin again.  Anywhere.

Those bits and pieces you’re putting together are your beautiful life.
I’ve told you several times in class, as I encouraged you to write stories and screenplays, that Alfred Hitchcock once said that: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”   His (and my) point was that you need to take out the character brushing her teeth--and "skip the door" (from Alexie Sherman's story).        
 And that’s right—at least when it comes to creating films and plays.  But when it comes to life—I give you the opposite message:  Life is the dull bits.  I’m not saying that life is dull.  But rather, it’s really the sum of all those moments.   Life isn’t really made up of the rites of passage like this one.  These events are the ones we think or imagine make up our life—the transitions, the major events like earning your drivers’ license, passing your roundtable, falling in love for the first time--and certainly those are important and memorable, but they aren’t ultimately what life is composed of.

Life is simply a delightful collection of those moments—those bits and pieces--that you don’t even necessarily remember for the rest of your life: like the orange peel fight in high school advisory, when you were supposed to be working on your portfolio but were overwhelmed by stinky feet smell and silliness . . .

Or the moment that you got your teacher to sit on a chair and you then lifted it up into the air and gave her an exhilarating ride until she was laughing so hard, tears fell from her face.

Or those moments in math class when you just couldn’t stand it anymore, and walked down the hall to say hi to your advisor.

Or the time you put candles on a mango and sang happy birthday to a wonderful friend, accompanied by a Dominican waiter--an opera singer wannabe. 

It’s even the moment you both loved and felt frustrated by your peers as you successfully re-built a picnic table, or sat at home, recovering from pneumonia.

Those moments are what make up your life.  So keep living--and the bits and pieces will create themselves—like little stories.   The moments will layer themselves like some rich dessert in an Italian pastry shop and they might seem like nothing, but they aren’t.  I encourage you to notice them. The poet Mary Oliver said that these are the “Instructions for living a life": 

Pay attention.   
Be astonished.
Tell about it.”
 Mary Oliver  (

I agree with Mary; my final words of advice to you are to take note of life’s moments,  and more than that--be astonished—even thunderstruck--by them.  And if you’re so inclined, share them.  Tell your stories . . . in a journal, in a photograph, in a TV script, in a drawing, in a film, or in a story you tell your boy or girlfriend as you eat ice cream on a hot day. . .

 I have been honored to witness some of the bits and pieces of your lives, and I feel enriched as a result.  Thank you for being the wonderfully funny, inquisitive, creative, respectful, hard-working, loving people that you are.  You have nourished me with your laughter, your stories, and your love.  You know how much I will miss you.  Thank you.

("skip the door" is a reference from Sherman Alexie's short story, Breaking and Entering, from the collection entitled, War Dances.)