The commencement address at your university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least get a decent job and pay the bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the motivating keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into uncertainty and failure. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months (or had already begun,) or had a terrific entry level position in a job that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.
I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the incentive of solid accomplishments that would look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and thin sandwiches, housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a Writer had only been sustained by marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (Yeah, if you’re 40 or under, you don’t know what that is – no worries.)
Over the next decade I fell into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in a few dead end trades paid bills until marriage; then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with my young children, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should also consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with religion, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, Scouts, theater, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.
I raised my sons and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.
The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first doing occasional art work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program and as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. [I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings; “lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon; or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separation.]
Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint designs for active wear (bikinis, board shorts, Hawaiian-style shirts) under pressure and with peculiar requirements, like board shorts with no orange hues as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange – damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics in a commercial studio is the norm, that stealing creative proprietary product is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (Art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, with great relief.
At any rate, I took what I’d learned, to paint fast and accurately, and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, why paint colors contrast better with some colors more than others, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, collage or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many kids went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art. I did that!
Art is a primal urge, evident by the 20 – 30,000-year-old treasures deep in European caves on rock walls that could only be reached via precarious scaffolds. Just imagine: wrapped in bearskin, walking on grass sandals, you hide behind boulders or as high in trees as the slender boughs will afford you. When you drop to earth, you tread softly so as not to awaken bad spirits, enemy tribesmen, or stalking predators twice your weight, and trek until you find the tiny hole in the embankment. You push aside the branches that keep its secret, enter the darkness, and plunge through space, uncertain where you will land or if safely. Or at all. Once there, you light a fish oil lamp in a shell, pick up a ragged-edged twig, a dollop of red-brown ochre, and a stub of charcoal. You may be famished and thirsty but nothing, not even desire to calm urges for food, can keep you from the calling of the muse, born before you were conceived. You pay homage to the spirits whom you revere and fear by creating massive images of horses and bison on rock ceilings reached only by standing on a rickety ladder built of broken limbs. You ask for blessings and success. You do what you’d come for: you paint.
I taught children to create art and I loved those years and I harbor no regret.
Eventually a roadblock stopped me. They are meant to. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. A kid cheated on a project and her parents demanded that I take the blame for her poor judgment by insisting I not be rehired. They were rich enough to hang a noose woven of dollar bills. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. I lost the art teacher position in the school where I’d built their upper school art program. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Still teaching art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation: it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:
Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that is left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were; stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold family as if your life and theirs depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day. And harbor no regrets.