In seven days, I put on a cheap, fire-hazard of a cap and gown, shuffle across the overpopulated floor of a gym, grab a mass-produced sheet of sepia-toned paper, and graduate–along with thousands of others in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have a lot to think about.
I auditioned to be one of the commencement speakers. I don’t think the committee appreciated my attempt to deconstruct the clichés that crowd most ceremonies–those lovely nuggets of wisdom we pocket heading out into the “real word” to find a job because “we’re the future” and “our education is only the beginning.”
“I didn’t think we’d make it,” but we did. Hopefully we’ve “found ourselves” and “remember where we came from” while we’re at it.
I think I’ve made my point…
Clichés are the Easy Mac of our language: artificial, devoid of nutrition, but easy to make. No one really likes clichés, but we use them at important events for well-trod expressions and cheeky adages. They’re quick and malleable. Few of us take the time to truly consider what the event means, or if we do, we can’t find the right words. There’s too much going on.
This is my problem.
I can feel the day approaching, but I don’t know what it means. And I’m not the sort of person who can blithely steps off into mystery like a trust fall. I need some clarity.
Writing has always been that clarity. I need to see everything sprawled out on the page before I can deal with it. In my head, my thoughts still writhe and wiggle, impossible to catch. I need them pinned up and still. Writing lets me do that.
But I don’t think I’m the only one with this problem. That’s life.
Long days pile up in such a way that they don’t make much sense until we step back at some point, see the images—like photos pinned on a cork board with red tacks—and say, “there, that’s when I grew up,” and we look ahead and say, “now what?”
We need a system to make sense of it all.
Some people turn to maxims. That’s what my dad does. “Do it today,” is one. Or he makes lists on yellow legal pads and scraps of paper torn from black books, crossing off each item as it gets it done. Others somehow keep it all in their heads, their responsibilities jostling together, popping out now and then in a moment of panic, as they shout, “I have to get that done!”
Others plan and process with their fingers rippling across their smartphones. Some simply let the world guide them–the tug of sage advice and practical considerations paving a path.
This last sort interests me.
One day, I asked one of my teachers why he studied philosophy. He laughed at first, then scratched his white beard–of course–before replying, “It was a passion. You can guide some people, but others need to chose on their own. I was one of the others.”
His words reminded me of other people I’ve met growing up. I always respected the ones who meandered a bit before settling down, soul-searching and experimenting with life before they found the right recipe. My Earth Science teacher was a lumberjack and restaurant owner before settling down to teach. My religion teacher was a sailor, then a lawyer in New York City before his job.
Going on retreats or sitting on trains and planes I love hearing the stories of the other travelers. One women studied ballet in London as a twelve-year-old, learning how to negotiate international travel and apartment living while hitting puberty. Another taught yoga on the foot of the Swiss Alps. A man I met at a Zen monastery was taking a nosedive into Zen after quitting his last job as a banker.
I’m always skeptical when I hear people reference a well-planned future–the sort that sound like a puzzle with all its pieces preset. To me, life feels way too messy and way too big.
I wonder what we’re all after, and if our lives have any direction. It’s a naive question. Perhaps even childish. But I don’t see many answers, so I keep asking it, and gradually, bit by bit, a few things emerge. And they don’t fit into clichés.
Instead, they form into images.
While in his forties, Camus revisited an essay he wrote in his twenties, concluding, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
I look back at certain images. For me, they’re like echoes, gradually broadened and hollowed out as time passes. But when I can get back at their original core, they’re raw and physical.
I often revisit my childhood days flying paper planes on long summer days. I feel the moist, wooden table, encrusted by moss and knotted with holes, as my neighbor and I fold clean, white paper pilfered from my dad’s desk to make our favorites: the dart, the eastern flier, the record breaker. The wind takes our crafts, throwing their brittle bodies against the blue, blue sky as branches clatter and hiss around us.
Such an image doesn’t fit well in a Facebook status.
But we live in a society that thrives on sound bytes. Our generation grew up with Internet buzzing and whirring as children; watched it transition to high speed in our adolescence; and saw the rise and fall of MySpace, the surge of Facebook, the birth of Twitter, and the mass production of iPhones—all within the last 20-something years. We don’t have time for universals. We have work to do. Give us the cliché, and we’ll leave it at that.
Still, there’s something pointed and human in those images. They remind us who we are and where we ought to go, providing clarity in an unclear world. So as I walk across the stage in a flurry of others, shake hands, and grab my diploma, I’ll consider folding it–perhaps into a dart or an eastern flier–and throwing into the wind of a clear summer day.