Friday, July 20, 2012

So take the photographs and still frames in your mind... hang it on a shelf in good health and good times.

I'm working on some future blog posts, just getting my brain used to the questions I have to answer, and I ended up going back and reading Abigail Disney's commencement address to my graduating class from Iona.

Iona is rife with scandal now... between misappropriated funds, lies about student achievement and data and alleged sexual abuse, I am trying to remember the times that I had there that truly shaped me as human being.

With that said, I miss Midnight Runs, and making Thanksgiving baskets.  My heart aches for orientation and the Edmund Rice Society and the absolutely incredible people I met through it.  I even miss typing agendas and dealing with stressful funding board meetings.  I miss SGA and all our giggles behind our agendas.  I miss sitting at the front desk from 9am-10pm on Saturdays and Sundays, picking up shifts to pay my rent.  I miss LaPenta, my home away from home.  I miss the salad bar at Spellman.  I miss my roommates.  I almost miss living with other girls.  I miss my RA.  I miss the trees that bloomed in gorgeous color in the spring.  I miss the Gingko tree.  I miss sitting on Walsh hill by the Cross on a gorgeous spring afternoon.  I even miss making the rapid fire trek from the 3rd floor of Hagan to the basement of Murphy in 8 minutes, all while dodging North Avenue traffic.  I miss the Avenue Deli and how I never had to even order, just show my face (egg whites and bacon on a roll, salt pepper and ketchup, iced coffee, two splenda and skim milk).  I miss those artery clogging potato cones from Chicken Joes.  I miss the library.  I miss Student Retention.  I miss tap class with my RHD and one of my favorite student leaders.  I miss not being afraid to be myself, not
being afraid to make a mistake.

Behind the cut, the wonderful Ms. Disney's speech.

 Iona College Commencement Speech

Abigail E. Disney
May 16, 2010

First of all, one thing needs to be said here: Woohoo!! Congratulations to all of you.  I have the best seat in the house.  You should see yourselves: young, well scrubbed and full of possibilities.  And yes, I did write that sentence last night, long before I laid eyes on this crowd, but that's just an indication of how much faith I have in you Ionians!!  Take a moment right now to notice where you are and who is around you, here for you, rooting for you.  Notice how you feel right now, and try for a second to recall any close calls you might have had on your way to this diploma, because odds are that most of you have had at least one:  car accidents narrowly averted, medical problems fought through, tuition payments barely made, or exams passed by the skin of your teeth.

Every one of us walks the earth by virtue of a thousand moments of grace, both large and small, most of which we barely notice.  And a graduation is a wonderful moment when you and that whole community that surrounds and supports you get to stop and remember that each and every one of you is an answered prayer.  These days don't come that often in a person's life--they are precious, so don't waste the opportunity to have a look around yourself, take a deep breath and remember this one important fact: this is what happily ever after looks like.  You, in that ridiculous mortarboard that Brad Pitt himself could not look good in, you are what your parents and families and teachers and friends have always been all about.  It is a sweet moment for them and for you, so drink it in....  And take it from me, if you don't milk it for all the Ipads and cash gifts you can get you're wasting a golden opportunity!!!

I will freely admit that I am not sure I am the most exciting commencement speaker you could have dreamed up.  I can't sing or dance, my jokes are pretty lame, and I only very recently figured out how to pronounce Nas.   As Jon Stewart said in a commencement speech a couple years ago, as a person I am thrilled, but as a person who cares about the school, I have to wonder, really?? Couldn't you do any better?  In fact, when I told my friend I was doing a commencement speech at Iona College she said I didn't know you owned a college - they have to have you as a commencement speaker!

I confess I don't remember a word any commencement speaker I've had has ever said - and I've graduated a lot.  But I do remember that the speeches tended to go on forever, and usually focused on the duties and obligations that came with my education.  Which I'm all for, don't get me wrong.  I also remember I might have been a teeny tiny bit hung over and that, in combination with the browbeating coming from the podium, caused me to climb into bed the minute I got home, and I think I slept until sometime in mid 1983.  

I suspect you guys don't need to be reminded by me that it's serious times out there.  I don't think you need me to tell you that the stakes are high, and that the terms of the debate at the moment are not bringing out the best in anyone.  And I suspect most of the parents and educators here will agree with me when I say that we are really hoping you will bring a fresh and better perspective to the mess we are currently making, because no matter where you are on the political spectrum, it's ugly times.

I'm not going to do that.  Instead I am going to shamelessly pander to you.  I think you should be focused on happiness.  Not duty or obligation or respect or commitment.  Just happiness.  Plain, ordinary, garden-variety happiness.  It's an area on which I consider myself to be something of an expert.  I have, after all, spent a lot of time in the "happiest place on earth," so much time, in fact, that I have seen Mickey without his head on.  I can ride space mountain twice in a row without getting off if I want, and I could even bring one of those giant turkey legs with me and no one would tell me no.  So I think I know a thing or two about happiness, and I am going share with you a few of my personal rules for finding it.

Rule One: don't be confused by pleasure.  Pleasure is to happiness as an apple is to an orchard - it's part of happiness to be sure, but a small part, and if you focus too much on it, there is so much you will miss.  And right now you are more surrounded and immersed than any generation in history by a hyperventilating culture that has no idea of the difference between an apple and an orchard full of apples, and that culture has ruined a lot of people's chances at real happiness.  The world can be a welter of possibilities or it can be a tornado of colliding desires.  It is your job to find your way through in tact.

There is a corollary to rule one.  In fact all these rules have corollaries and yes, there will be a quiz later so listen carefully.  The corollary to rule one is: never miss a chance to have fun.  Yes, I know I just told you to mistrust pleasure, but that doesn't mean you have to be a party pooper.    Every study about happiness shows that simply choosing to smile increases people's happiness levels.  How amazing.  That means that happiness makes more happiness.  And that's not just true for you alone but for the people around you.  Happiness is contagious, and if you choose it for yourself, you never know who might be standing near enough to catch it from you.  It is something even little 13-year-old Anne Frank understood when she said, "I don't think of the misery but of all the beauty that still remains."  And if she can choose happiness, I am quite sure that it is possible, even necessary for you and I to do the same. 

Rule Two:  pay more attention to the people around you than to yourself.  When you focus only on what you need, like, and want, you will never see or be able to enjoy all the people around you who can give you everything you need, like and want.  When Copernicus suggested that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around, everyone was furious with him for ruining their comfortable belief that we were at the center of everything. But once the shock of that knowledge had worn off we came to see that we were so much better off.  Instead of a narrow, finite world, it turned out the universe we inhabited was limitless and unknowable.  And I know I prefer the limitless universe where anything is possible, to the narrow confines of a small and limited heart.

The corollary to rule two is: while you must get out of your own head, still it is important for you to pay attention to yourself.  Some people try to throw themselves entirely into the job of doing good, without regard for the consequences to themselves. That is nice and generous and everything, but don't be fooled, it can be just as much a form of narcissism as selfishness, and besides, what good is all that do-gooding going to do if you can't keep doing it forever?    If you believe everyone deserves human dignity equally, then recognize that you are one of those people and you deserve it too.  Take care of your soul and your heart and they will take care of you--and we'll all be better off for it.
Rule Three:  know that you are not now nor will you ever be strong enough to do everything without help.  And know that this is good news.  We are born for community and interdependence.  In fact, one of the most universally reliable forms of torture is simply to deprive someone of human interaction.  Desmond Tutu talks in his book about a beautiful African concept known as Ubuntu, which roughly translated means "I am because you are."  Knowing that I am one star in a vast constellation is an enormous comfort to me-- it forces me to share my burdens and hopes, lightening the one while magnifying the other.

Corollary to rule three: just because we are interdependent doesn't mean you should lose your independence.  Yes, I know this sounds schizophrenic.  But our dependence on each other can sometimes lead us to be a little credulous, a little easily convinced by the group.  But here's the truth:  nothing has to be the way that it is.  No border has to be where it is, women don't have to earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, there don't have to be two parties in American politics, and war is not inevitable.  I've been to some interesting places in my life but the one that has most consistently intrigued me is the equator.  Can you believe that your car does not even go bump when you cross it?  You can actually stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern and nothing happens!  No vortex forms around your feet or anything like that and weirdly all around you people go about their business like there is nothing unusual about the place.  It's crazy.

But if you look at the equator on a map you would think differently.  The same goes for country borders.  They look so significant on a map, we draw them with dark, important lines, and yet in life they mean nothing.  What other lines and boundaries might equally be figments of our imaginations?  What if we stopped seeing those lines as the deep gashes meant to hold these places separate, but instead as the visible threads of a grand fabric, the stitching that holds us all together?  And without an independent mind, how would we ever be able to see that, and to work toward what it demands of us?

Be warned that an independent mind might occasionally bring you into conflict with the people and institutions you treasure.  Be warned that that can be very unpleasant for all involved.  Be warned that in your life you will feel tempted by what is easy over what is right.  That you will want to slouch into your life, to not tell yourself the whole truth, to fudge a little around the edges.  And if this feels daunting, just remember that nothing worth having was ever easy to achieve.

In the interest of time, I'll speed through the rest of the rules.  And don't worry; if you forget them, I encourage you to make up your own.

Rule Four: love art, but never be too pompous to laugh at a sitcom or a clown.  In fact if I trip over my gown on my way back to my seat, I sincerely hope you will have the good sense to find me hilarious.

Five: live in the moment, but never take your eye off tomorrow, or forget the lessons you learned from yesterday.

Six: work hard at forgiveness and train your heart to be soft and accepting, but never lose your capacity for righteous anger.

Seven: follow your heart, but listen to your parents.

Eight: be a good citizen in your own neighborhood.  Clean up the litter, help the old lady across the street and go to the town hall meeting but never let that be an excuse to neglect your other citizenship: the world.  Our planet is made up of millions of neighborhoods that aspire and dream and wish for all the same things yours does and they will occasionally need some help from you.  Don't withhold what you have to offer them, simply because they are physically far away from you.

Nine: be a part of your political processes, fight the lure of apathy, care enough about politics to bring all of your values and your heart to them, but never, ever lose your ability to sit down and share a beer with someone who disagrees with you. 

Ten: expect a lot of yourself; set the bar high, but let it go when you fail, move on and start over as quick as you can.

Eleven: love everyone but don't be a chump.

Twelve: always try to help.  Never try to save.  Helping is humble; saving is arrogant.

Fourteen: always skip the number thirteen.

Fifteen: live with passion but don't ever mistake passion for commitment, not in yourself nor in the people around you.

And Sixteen: never confuse being wealthy with having a rich life.  Rich people are just as unhappy as everyone else, and while their money might buy them plenty of toys to distract themselves with, in their unhappiness, it also buys them bigger, uglier, more effective tools with which to hurt each other. 
Yes, the rules are schizophrenic and contradictory.  Not unlike life.  The trick in all of this is a little thing called balance.  And balance is hard to achieve, until it's not.  We all remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike, and yet when we got going we wondered what all the fuss was about.  That's because you can't balance when you are standing still.  The only way to find balance is to go forward and not look back.  Then balance will find you and not the other way around.

Think of the man on the high wire at the circus.  Imagine the way his foot wavers back and forth, his arms in constant motion to maintain his place up there.  He does not ever simply inhabit the absolute center, where the ideal point of balance is.  If he tries he will fall. What he does instead is to move back and forth through the center - a thousand tiny failures that amount to a grand success. 
So by now I imagine you've sniffed out my bait and switch.  Yes I claimed to be pandering to you by talking about happiness, but the truth I've found is this.  If you want a life of duty, and of responsibility and of decency, you will pursue happiness.  Not enjoyment, not fun, not pleasure, though these are all aspects of happiness, but a life of happiness in all its complexity and contradictions.  Likewise if you want to be happy, you'll do your duties with joy, you'll see your responsibilities as gifts, and you'll understand decency as a simple human thing called love.
If you seek happiness the world is better for it.  So it is your duty to find it.  It is your absolute moral imperative.  Follow your heart and your path will show itself, and it will inevitably lead you right into the center of everything good.

Now I did say there would be a quiz, so here it comes.  Don't panic.  Today's quiz is only for extra credit and it's a take-home.  There are three questions and they are: 1) who will you choose to be in this life and how do you intend to the leave the world better for having known you?  2) What feeds your soul and fills your heart?  And 3) what will happily ever after look like tomorrow, and twenty years from now, and on the very last day of your life?

This quiz should take you about seventy-five years.  It will not be graded on a curve, but I suspect you guys don't need to worry about that.  Just remember what it says on your diploma: "certa bonum certamen," fight the good fight.  If you can do that, you'll all be A students, I'm sure.  God bless you all.

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