Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Graduating Into Your Own Life

I grew up in northern Ontario, about three hundred miles north of Toronto, in a town with a population of five thousand, one traffic light, two bars, and ten churches. A few years ago, I received an email telling me I was being awarded a place in the local high school’s Hall of Fame- something I didn’t even know existed. Accepting the award involved speaking to the graduating class at spring convocation. I’d only been back to the town once in the last thirty years, and it had not gone well. Travelling through the area, I’d stopped at a restaurant parking lot on the edge of town, suddenly feeling nauseous. Getting out of the car and bending over to hold my heaving stomach, I suddenly realized how painfully out of place I’d always felt in this small conservative town. It was a bit of a shock really- but the body does not lie, and mine was protesting so loudly I got in back in my car and drove on.

Despite this, I accepted the award and headed north. The organizers wanted a short address- a recitation of the poem “The Invitation,” and a three to five minute inspirational talk for the graduates. I was guessing that, “Congratulations, I got out of this town- now you can too!” wasn’t what they had in mind. I pondered what might have been helpful for me to hear when I was seventeen. I mulled, I wrote, I meditated, I prayed.

Before I left, my oldest son Brendan offered some advice. “You know, you don’t need to worry so much about this. It doesn’t really matter what you say. They aren’t really going to listen anyway. You’re too old.”

He was right of course, but I knew my inner seventeen year old would be listening.

The graduation ceremony was in the town’s arena. Teachers and administrators got up and gave the live-your-best-life cheerleading speeches. Graduates received diplomas while someone at the mic told us their future plans. Many were going “directly into the work force” at low paying jobs in the area. One young woman had sung an absolutely breath-taking acappella song at the start of the evening. As she accepted her diploma it was announced that she was going to be trained as a beautician. Now cutting hair and doing nails is a perfectly fine way to make a living, but this girl could really sing. When I quietly asked the teacher next to me why she wasn’t going to Julliard (she was that good) I was told her parents wanted her to get a skill that would ensure employment.

I was sitting on stage, facing the graduates who were in the first few rows of the audience. Although they were sitting in alphabetical order, it just happened that the front row held a collection of beautiful, well-dressed, clear-skinned young women and cocky, athletic looking young men who were whispering and flirting, clearly impatient to get on with the real event of the evening- the party afterwards. Then I noticed several graduates in the second row watching those in front of them with avid interest and naked envy. A few were overweight and had skin ravaged by the hormones of adolescence. One had thick glasses with dark frames held together on one side with masking tape. One young woman looked truly miserable as she watched the social interaction between those directly in front of her. If there was an A-list party, those in the second row had not been invited.

When the time came I walked up to the podium and surveyed the crowd. The arena was hot, humid and packed to capacity. Everyone in town seemed to be there. I recited “The Invitation,” looked at those in the second row, and spoke.

“If you have not felt like you fit in at high school, if- because of who you are, or how you look, or who you love, or what interests you- you have felt alone or isolated, congratulations! You just made it through the worse four years of your life. You will never again have so little power to decide where you are or what you do. Your parents and teachers and others who care about you, in an effort to prepare you for life, have told you a story about who you are and what you can and should do. Now, it’s your job to sift through all of what you have been given and decide what is useful to you and what is not. Because. . . .” and here I made myself slow down, “. . . . a lot of what you have been taught has nothing to do with you. If it is not useful to you, if it does not help you create the life you want and need to flourish- throw it out! From now on, you must decide and discover who you are and what kind of life you want to make for yourself. Decide for yourself. Find out who you really are. It’s your life. Live it.”

There was a short stunned silence followed by a smattering of polite applause.

The next day, driving south, I felt as if some kind of weight had been lifted from me. Alone in the car, I spoke aloud. “So that’s it? Stop worrying about what others think of you? Stop listening to someone else’s story about who you are or what you can do? Did I get it?” And then, I did something I rarely do- I asked the universe for a sign, something immediate and dramatic to confirm that I had offered my inner seventeen year old (and maybe even some of the graduates) something useful. And less than three seconds later, as I rounded a bend in the highway, a large black bear (my birth totem) reared up at the side of the road and stood on its hind legs as I drove past. I was stunned. In all the years I’d lived there, I’d never seen a bear from the highway.

I laughed out loud, whooped with amazement, called out to the mysterious choreographer of sychronicities, “I’ll take that as a Yes!”


  1. AND with arms wide open, Laura!!! heehee


  2. At 36 I still feel like that 17 year old. Still wondering who I am and what I want and should be doing with my life. Haunted endlessly about dreams that did not come to fruition. In hindsight, questioning the choices that, for all intents and purposes, were made for me. Expectations I could not and have not met. I am just now starting to learn who this person is. The one that has a very real "soul" that is unaffected by people and history. Committed to finding the life I want and need. Taking what has been useful and leaving the rest - even if it's everything. So often I wish there was a rewind button but with much resolve I remind myself that this is my path, this is my journey to my own greatness.

    Hope to graduate into my own life soon...

    Thanks again for such a thoughtful and honest introspection, Gentle Guide.


  3. One thing that has been dogging me and draining my energy -- besides my hectic schedule -- is a list of "coulda woulda shoulda". And this is not a list that can be dismissed, but one that has necessarily been put on hold because of the aforementioned schedule... that and budget constraints.

    And I've been beating myself up because of the delay, but I'm stopping that, as of last night. It finally occurred to me -- and this is something that I've intellectualized but never quite fully internalized -- that all my answers, I already have, right here inside me. The trick is, to get still enough and quiet the ceaseless chatter that usually commands my energy enough so that I can... "hear my Self think." I am quite enough in all ways... I am intelligent, I am bright, I am caring and compassionate, I'm sexy, I'm not half bad looking and a damn good cook.

    What I've been lacking so far is patience, not only with others, but most of all with myself. And I need to trust that my answers are sufficient to resolve any list issues.

    The more I get into the Stillness, the more it beckons me, and the more I heed its call.


  4. although i would have been that 17 year old that listened, it would not have been until i was 28 to start deconstructing my life and apply those words i had heard. shedding layers and layers. but as rilke said, if you are seeking, questioning etc. you will 'live your way into the answers.' so, oriah, even though you might have spoken to a select group that you thought could hear you more clearly, you never know whose subconscious your words will stay like a splinter in the soul which needs to realign itself with its most authentic whisper.

    thank you. big hugs.

  5. oh, i just loved reading this! as a part-time h.s.teacher for a time, i tried to tell students that the big college decision was not as critical as everyone hypes it up to be. being who you really are deep inside is what matters in the end. that you had the courage to stand up and say something socially, shall we say, daring, in that setting, made me so proud of you! thanks for sharing this delightful story! Laurel

  6. Laurel, ah yes that BIG college decision as if that one decision will set the course for the rest of your life. What a set up that can be!

  7. "You will never again have so little power to decide where you are or what to do."

    I'm 60, but I can remember back to high school and college and well afterward. What strikes me is how much power we as adults really have to decide. Yet, we often don't take it. I know for me, the parents, teachers and society taught me so well what I could and couldn't do or be, they actually taught me to teach myself what they wanted me to learn. Planted the wrong seed inside me, that took root and grew.

    It's never too late to sift through what you've been taught, stop feeding that wrong plant and nurture new and different growth.

    It could be that I/we can quote that one sentence as we begin each day.

    Never again will I have to little power to decide where I am or what to do.

    Thanks, Oriah.

  8. Thank you I had to hear this.....not only my inner 17 year old...but even my now 32 year old self had to hear it...thank you for sharing the story....and thank you for giving te speech....maybe the high school kids didn't hear what you where saying at the time that you did...but there comes a time....they need the advise you gave them then and there.

  9. Dear Oriah, thank you very much. It's not just your inner 17-year-old you were talking to but to all of us who would have been sitting in the second row at similar occasions. Perhaps many in the public did not understand what you were talking about, but those don't need this kind of support. Nevertheless I am sure a lot in the arena knew very well what you were thinking of and were afraid to show it - hence the merely polite applause.

  10. and i have learned at 31 (almost!) that some people, most people, have never really graduated high school, despite long having graduated.

    i mean even our adult tv shows are a depiction of that...so it naturally feeds the reality...

    i also liked "THE" college decision which is only as inconsequential as "THE" major you choose. for crying out loud. lol i don't mean inconsequential...one road leads onto others...but just the madness around it, good God. When I was teaching high school, I would often tell my students: sometimes the path doesn't matter, sometimes the path is the only thing that matters, either way, you will have to decide, if you choose, who and how do you want to be.

  11. What an inspired and courageous address to make. And so true. I used to be a music teacher in elementary schools. I moved to highschool (as a teacher-librarian) when I could no longer bear the way the school system was destroying meaningful music instruction. I left teaching highschool when I realized that I couldn't look all the wonderful talented young people in the eye and tell them to follow their dreams...whatever that might take...because I hadn't done so myself. I went through a mid-life crisis and finally found the courage and conviction to follow my own dreams...to quit trying to fit the mold that my conservative religious up-bringing had prescribed for me. At the age of 42 I no longer have a secure job. My pension will be next to nothing (which is o.k. because I no longer worry about retiring!) and I haven't got a clue what life will look like a year, or two, or three from now. But I'm following my bliss(a la Joseph Campbell) and loving it. (Which isn't to say that anxiety isn't a fairly common feeling in my life!) I still supply-teach and I try, with the limited influence I have as a supply -teacher, to impart to kids that life isn't really about landing the job that everyone else tells you would be ideal...that making a good income isn't necessarily a measure of quality of life. I know that your words, Oriah, will set someone free...maybe not right away...but eventually, anyway. I wish someone had said that to me when I was 17.

  12. Great story. I couldn't take the time to read it over the last couple of days, since I found your blog. It was enough that you wrote that poem and I had to go and share it impulsively with a woman to whom I am not married. Sheesh. Now this. I am deeply grateful for your ability to write and channel so well. This is a great story. I wish someone said that to me when I was seventeen. But it's never too late.

  13. Wow - that is pretty much the speech I would give if ever asked! Having listened to four (each) absolutely horrible valedictory and salutatory speeches, this is what graduates should hear instead of the insipid, egocentric verbiage laced with multiple thinly veiled "shout-outs" to the speaker's private circle or significant other and more quotes than should ever be allowed in a single speech. Thank you, Oriah!
    Janet Sullivan