Commencement

Here’s a commencement address given by Anne Lamott at UC Berkeley :

I am honored and surprised that you asked me to speak today.

This must be a magical day for you. I wouldn’t know. I accidentally forgot to graduate from college. I meant to, 30 years ago, but things got away from me. I did graduate from high school, though — do I get a partial credit for that? Although, unfortunately, my father had forgotten to pay the book bill, so at the graduation ceremony, when I opened the case to see my diploma, it was empty. Except for a ransom note that said, see Mrs. Foley, the bookkeeper, if you ever want to see your diploma alive again.

I went to Goucher College in Maryland for the best possible reasons — to learn — but then I dropped out at 19 for the best possible reasons — to become a writer. Those of you who have read my work know that instead, I accidentally became a Kelly girl for a while. Then, In a dazzling career move, I got hired as a clerk typist in the Nuclear Quality Assurance Department at Bechtel, where I worked typing and sorting triplicate forms. I hate to complain, but it was not very stimulating work. But it paid the bills, so I could write my stories every night when I got home. I worked at Bechtel for six months — but I had nothing to do with the current administration’s shameless war profiteering. I just sorted triplicate forms. You’ve got to believe me.

It was a terrible job, at which I did a terrible job, but it paid $600 a month, which was enough to pay my rent and bills. This is the real fly in the ointment if you are crazy enough to want to be an artist — you have to give up your dreams of swimming pools and fish forks, and take any old job. At 20, I got hired at a magazine as an assistant editor, and I think that was the last real job I’ve ever had.

I bet I’m beginning to make your parents really nervous — here I am sort of bragging about being a dropout, and unemployable, and secretly making a pitch for you to follow your creative dreams, when what they want is for you to do well in your field, make them look good, and maybe also make a tiny fortune.

But that is not your problem. Your problem is how you are going to spend this one odd and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over people and circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.

At some point I finally started getting published, and experiencing a meager knock-kneed standing in the literary world, and I started to get almost everything that many of you graduates are hoping for — except for the money.

I got a lot of things that society had promised would make me whole and fulfilled — all the things that the culture tells you from preschool on will quiet the throbbing anxiety inside you — stature, the respect of colleagues, maybe even a kind of low-grade fame. The culture says these things will save you, as long as you also manage to keep your weight down. But the culture lies.

Slowly, after dozens of rejection slips and failures and false starts and postponed dreams — what Langston Hughes called dreams deferred — I stepped onto the hallowed ground of being a published novelist, and then 15 years later, I even started to make real money.

I’d been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit she’d been chasing all her life — metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn’t feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit, in the same way only your own blood type can sustain you. It had nothing that could slake the lifelong thirst I had for a little immediacy, and connection.

So from the wise old pinnacle of my years, I want to tell you that what you’re looking for is already inside you. You’ve heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it. You can’t buy it, lease it, rent it, date it or apply for it. The best job in the world can’t give it to you. Neither can success, or fame, or financial security — besides which, there ain’t no such thing. J.D. Rockefeller was asked, “How much money is enough?” and he said, “Just a little bit more.”

So it can be confusing — most of your parents want you to do well, to be successful. They want you to be happy — or at least happy-ish. And they want you to be nicer to them; just a little nicer — is that so much to ask?

They want you to love, and be loved, and to find peace, and to laugh and find meaningful work. But they also — some of them — a few of them — not yours — yours are fine — they also want you to chase the bunny for a while. To get ahead, sock some away, and then find a balance between the greyhound bunny-chase, and savoring your life.
But the thing is that you don’t know if you’re going to live long enough to slow down, relax, and have fun, and discover the truth of your spiritual identity. You may not be destined to live a long life; you may not have 60 more years to discover and claim your own deepest truth — like Breaker Morant said, you have to live every day as if it’s your last, because one of these days, you’re bound to be right.
So I thought it might help if I just went ahead and told you what I think is the truth of your spiritual identity…

Actually, I don’t have a clue.

I do know you are not what you look like, or how much you weigh, or how you did in school, and whether you get to start a job next Monday or not. Spirit isn’t what you do, it’s … well, again, I don’t actually know. They probably taught this junior year at Goucher. But I know that you feel it best when you’re not doing much — when you’re in nature, when you’ve very quiet, or, paradoxically, listening to music.

I know you can feel it and hear it in the music you love, in the bass line, in the harmonies, in the silence between notes; in Chopin and Eminem, Emmylou Harris, Bach, whoever. You can close your eyes and feel the divine spark, concentrated in you, like a little Dr. Seuss firefly. It flickers with aliveness and relief, like an American in a foreign country who suddenly hears someone speaking in English. In the Christian tradition, they say that the soul rejoices in hearing what it already knows. And so you pay attention when that Dr. Seuss creature inside you sits up and says, “Yo!”

We can see spirit made visible in people being kind to each other, especially when it’s a really busy person, taking care of a needy annoying person. Or even if it’s terribly important you, stopping to take care of pitiful, pathetic you. In fact, that’s often when we see spirit most brightly.

It’s magic to see spirit largely because it’s so rare. Mostly you see the masks and the holograms that the culture presents as real. You see how you’re doing in the world’s eyes, or your family’s, or — worst of all — yours, or in the eyes of people who are doing better than you — much better than you — or worse. But you are not your bank account, or your ambitiousness. You’re not the cold clay lump with a big belly you leave behind when you die. You’re not your collection of walking personality disorders. You are spirit, you are love, and, while it is increasingly hard to believe during this presidency, you are free. You’re here to love, and be loved, freely. If you find out next week that you are terminally ill — and we’re all terminally ill on this bus — all that will matter is memories of beauty, that people loved you, and you loved them, and that you tried to help the poor and innocent.

So how do we feed and nourish our spirit, and the spirit of others?

First, find a path, and a little light to see by. Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things: 1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there. 2) You reap exactly what you sow. 3) You must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can’t help you.

You don’t have to go overseas. There are people right here who are poor in spirit; worried, depressed, dancing as fast as they can, whose kids are sick, or whose retirement savings are gone. There is great loneliness among us, life-threatening loneliness. People have given up on peace, on equality. They’ve even given up on the Democratic Party, which I haven’t, not by a long shot. You do what you can, what good people have always done: You bring thirsty people water; you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog.

Anything that can help you get your sense of humor back feeds the spirit, too. Laughter is carbonated holiness. Find people who laugh gently at themselves, who remind you gently to lighten up.

Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down. Some of you start jobs Monday; some of you desperately wish you did — some of your parents are asthmatic with anxiety that you don’t. They shared this with me before the ceremony began.

But again, this is not your problem. If your family is hell-bent on you making a name for yourself in the field of, say, molecular cell biology, then maybe when you’re giving them a final tour of campus, you can show them to the admissions office. I doubt very seriously that they could even get into U.C. Berkeley — I talked to a professor who said there is not a chance he could get in these days.

So I would recommend that you all just take a long deep breath, and stop. Just be where your butts are, and breathe. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is trying to shame you into hopping right back up onto the rat exercise wheel.

Rest, but pay attention. Refuse to cooperate with anyone who is stealing your freedom, your personal and civil liberties, and then smirking about it. I’m not going to name names. Just send money to the ACLU whenever you can.

But in general, slow down if you can. Better yet, lie down.
In my 20s I devised a school of relaxation that has unfortunately fallen out of favor in the ensuing years — it was called Prone Yoga. You just lie around as much as possible. You could read, listen to music, you could space out, or sleep. But you had to be lying down. Maintaining the prone.

You’ve graduated. You have nothing left to prove, and besides, it’s a fool’s game. If you agree to play, you’ve already lost. It’s Charlie Brown and Lucy, with the football. If you keep getting back on the field, they win. There are so many great things to do right now. Write. Sing. Rest. Eat cherries. Register voters. And — oh my God — I nearly forgot the most important thing: refuse to wear uncomfortable pants, even if they make you look really thin. Promise me you’ll never wear pants that bind or tug or hurt, pants that have an opinion about how much you’ve just eaten. The pants may be lying! There is way too much lying and scolding going on politically right now without your pants getting in on the act, too.

So bless you. You’ve done an amazing thing. And you are loved; you are capable of lives of great joy and meaning. It’s what you are made of. And it’s what you’re for. So take care of yourselves; take care of each other. We thank you in advance for the incredible work that lies ahead for you. And God bless you good.

Everything

Martin Creed’s artwork below is complex in the sense that he’s at least a little bit joking. When asked what he meant by it, he just said,  ‘It means everything is going to be all right’, but many have questioned if it’s ironic, or actually, pessimistic.

Perhaps it’s better taken at face value:

Work No. 203: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT 1999 Martin Creed born 1968 Presented by Tate Patrons 2009 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T12799
And borrowed by the Ace in NYC

Francis

Taken from this great speech given by AA legend Sandy Beach is how the prayer of St Francis opens up an idea about the power of spirituality:

“Looking back, I would say that the prayer of St Francis in in the 12 and 12 under the 11th step was just an eye-opener when my sponsor explained it to me. 

So, if you’re new, I’m just going to focus on the first line in that prayer and see if your evaluation of it was the same as mine was when I first heard it.  

The prayer starts with just, 

“Lord, make me a channel of thy peace”. 

So, what do you picture when you hear that? And I’ll tell you what I pictured: here I am, just a wreck. Full of anxiety, all these things and here’s this vision that I have. “Make me a channel of thy peace” – so this channel opens up from somewhere up there and all this peace flows in to me and I feel wonderful. 

And my sponsor says, “Well that’s close, but you have it exactly backwards”. 

“You have it exactly backwards. That’s not what happens at all. You see, you are living in the self-centred, intellectual perspective and that’s exactly how it looks but nothing in the spiritual world conforms to the intellectual world and that’s not how it is at all. 

And I’m saying, “Oh my god, this is getting complicated. I just don’t understand this. All we’re talking about is a little channel and now he’s got me off into advanced something-or-other”. And he says, “Well, look at the rest of the prayer. It says ‘I want to be a channel of thy peace, so that I can go out and bring understanding and bring love and bring comfort and bring peace. So that I can go out and take care of all other people that I may run in to’.” And he said that the channel comes from inside of you, out. “You had the energy completely reversed, you thought that you needed something. You don’t need anything at all. You already have it all inside and it’s been locked in there through your character defects. It’s been blocked and that’s why we have these steps to open that channel so that all of this can come out and you can allow this infinite supply of peace and love that’s already inside of you to get out and you’re going to find that the greatest joy in the world of just spreading this.” 

And I remember saying, “well it doesn’t feel like that, it feels like there’s nothing inside of me. It feels like I’m empty and if I ever open up and let whatever little is in there out…” I had the picture that I was like a balloon that was just going to deflate when the air was let out. And just be flat. 

Three

To pay close attention to and mostly accept your life, inside and out and around your body, is to be halfway home. An old woman in twelve-step recovery once told me that while there is an elaborate prayer in one of the steps, of turning one’s life and all results over to the care of God, she and some old-timers secretly pray upon waking, “Whatever,” and pray before falling asleep, “Oh, well.”

The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.

Almost Everything, pp 62-63

Giving

A piece on generosity from Lamott Bird by Bird (p 133):

“Here is the best true story on giving I know, and it was told by Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre. An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight. The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister; until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?”

Gum

This is from Anne Lamott’s Bird by bird (pp 29-31):

“When I was twenty-one, I had my tonsils removed. I was one of those people who got strep throat every few minutes, and my doctor finally decided that I needed to have my tonsils taken out. For the entire week afterwards, swallowing hurt so much that I could barely open my mouth for a straw. I had a prescription for painkillers, though, and when they ran out but the pain hadn’t, I called the nurse and said that she would really need to send another prescription over, and maybe a little mixed grill of drugs because I was feeling somewhat anxious. But she wouldn’t. I asked to speak to her supervisor. She told me her supervisor was at lunch and that I needed to buy some gum, of all things, and to chew it vigorously – the thought of which made me clutch at my throat. She explained that when we have a wound in our body, the nearby muscles cramp around it to protect it from any more violation and from infection, and that I would need to use these muscles if I wanted them to relax again. So finally my best friend Pammy went out and bought me some gum, and I began to chew it, with great hostility and skepticism. The first bites caused a ripping sensation in the back of my throat, but within minutes all of the pain was gone, permanently.

“I think that something similar happens with our psychic muscles. They cramp around our wounds- the pain from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood, the humiliations suffered in both-to keep from getting hurt in the same place again, to keep foreign substances out. So those wounds never have a chance to heal. Perfectionism is one way our muscles cramp. In some cases we don’t even know that the wounds and the cramping are there, but both limit us. They keep us moving [and writing] in tight, worried ways. They keep us standing back or backing away from life, keep us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way. So how do you break through and get on?

“It’s easier if you believe in God […] Now it might be that your God is an uptight, judgemental perfectionist, sort of like Bob Dole or, for that matter, me. But a priest friend of mine has cautioned me away from the standard God of our childhoods, who loves and guides you and then, if you are bad, roasts you: God as high school principal in a gray suit who never remembered your name but is always leafing unhappily through your files. If this is your God, maybe you need to blend in the influence of someone who is ever so slightly more amused by you, someone less anal. David Byre is good, for instance. Gracie Allen is good. Mr Rogers will work.

Almost everything

I’ve just finished Almost Everything – Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. Lamott is a very funny character, probably most famous for Bird By Bird, a book about writing, but really about spirituality too.

She is in AA, is very active in the church, a Californian, a writer both of novels and of a variety of self-help books. She teaches writing. And she’s very funny as you can see from the TED talk above.

They might not always be in the most coherent order, but Almost Everything is crammed full of interesting ideas, rattled out in Lamott’s signature machine-gun style. It’s very thought provoking and I’ll pull out my favourite ideas from the books in the following posts.

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