To Sarah, On Your Graduation

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I wanted to write you a perfect graduation speech. Seriously, I started composing this when you were born, but as I’ve watched you grow it’s become more difficult. Part of the problem is that you have a great bullshit detector – you already know that hard work doesn’t necessarily make dreams come true, and that we can’t all be astronauts and movie stars when we grow up. (Damn you, Carl Hiaasen, for beating me to that punch anyway.) Also, as I rocked my baby to sleep, I imagined a future you identical to myself – someone who’d need my advice. For the most part, you don’t.

So as the clock has ticked down, I’ve pondered and typed and stared and deleted and pondered and stared some more. I told Rachel I was in the weeds; her reply: “Lucy says, If you get stuck trying to create amazing art, just go make some shitty art.” Now, there’s something to that. When the young newspaper reporter Roger Ebert was assigned to write movie reviews in 1967, he basically just started writing. Ebert met his deadlines and occasionally wrote something exceptional; he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1975. Genius is all well and good, but give me someone who can be relied on to show up and do the work.

My high school yearbook photo is captioned, “Fifty percent of what we have taught you is wrong. Our problem is we do not know which fifty percent.” (David S. Greer, M.D.) When I first saw that quote under my face, I regretted not choosing something more conventionally pithy or clever. Thirty years later, I realize it holds up. I don’t mean what you’ve learned in school is useless. A pragmatist doesn’t say, “I’ll never use algebra in real life,” but asks, “How can I apply the concepts to whatever I happen to be working on?” Don’t get hung up on which half is right or wrong – show up and do your work, and use everything you’ve picked up along the way.

To that end, make it a point to learn something new every day. I think that’s harder now than it used to be – the Internet signal-to-noise ratio obscures facts and rationality. (There are still libraries, for now.) Exercise your body as well as your mind – again, every day. The habit of exercise is what’s important in this case. Always have short, medium, and long-term goals. Figure out your life mission statement and measure your decisions against it. These will help you answer the questions “Why am I doing what I’m doing,” and “Is it the right thing?” ALWAYS do the right thing.

Don’t do any of it right away, though. Take a moment and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Breathe in the early summer air and remember this moment; save the memory for when life gets hard, which it will. Recognize those who’ve gone before and fought for what you now enjoy: unprecedented opportunities and freedoms and privileges that absolutely can’t be taken for granted. You’ll need to fight to maintain and extend them to others. Consider the community that has raised you – family and teachers and friends who have shared their time, knowledge, and resources to help you get this far. Continue their work by loving extravagantly, knowing that love is not a zero sum game – the more you give, the more you have to give.

When it comes to community, my debt is at least as great as yours. I have been housed, fed, and loved by a dozen families; some of those have also loved you. For instance, before you even started school I found myself without a job and beginning college at 32 years old. Steve and Grace watched you in the afternoon when I attended classes; without them, your own college plans might be different in the fall. And of course, as I think about your commencement today, I remember putting on my own cap and gown in Mike and Betsy’s living room. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you how pleased Grandma Sue would have been, and surely is, this morning.

I am absurdly proud of you right now. I think it’s been pretty easy to be your father – to those who say we’re similar, I counter that I was harder to steer. From the moment you first came backstage you decided to stay; I couldn’t be happier with your choices. A long time ago I wrote that only your parents will ever cheer when you play a carrot in the school play, and you don’t ever stop looking for them in the audience. We’ll be there.

Your mother and I love you, Sarah. Have fun storming the castle!