Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for the honor of speaking to you on such an auspicious occasion. Thank you President Fox, esteemed faculty and guests, graduates, parents and friends.
Almost 30 years ago, I was in your seat. Probably I was daydreaming, deconstructing the commencement speaker’s tie or maybe the wave of his hair.
Probably I was thinking about how the hell I was going to fit everything I owned into my 20-year-old VW Beetle — and whether it would actually make the two-and-a-half hour drive from my college apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio, to the capital city of Columbus, without breaking down. I had roughly 24 hours to prepare for my first “real job,” an internship at a city magazine that paid $200 a week ‑ before taxes. A bore of a position for someone with big-city journalist aspirations, its main task was to update the magazine’s annual dining guide, which meant sitting at a desk and calling 600 restaurants to ask whether they served mahi mahi and took American Express. Every day, for three months.
I was excited. I was terrified. As the first person in my family to have gone to college, I had zero financial cushion to fall back on — no wealthy uncle, no wealthy friends, no more than a hundred bucks in my checking account. I was the daughter of a widow who made $8,000 a year test-driving cars for a Honda subcontractor. My student loans bills were about to come due, and the only thing holding my car battery in place under the backseat of my rusty VW was a broken cutting board my boyfriend helped jam between the rusty metal frame and the seat.
I speak to you now, almost-graduates, from the other side of that dark financial precipice. I tell you this as someone who’s turning 50 in 12 days and who wishes she could go back in time to counsel that scared 22 year old with the burgeoning anxiety disorder, and blanket her with giant beams of confidence. I wish I could whisper to her as she sleeps the deep, post-adolescent slumber of the twentysomething young. I would push back the not-yet-gray hair from her face and tuck it behind her not-yet-faltering ear. And I would tell her this:
Remember the lilacs. That’s my way of telling you to spend your time doing what taps into the essence of you, whatever that essence may be.
I was the last child of four — the middle-aged surprise — born to parents who struggled financially and in other ways. I was, practically speaking, raised as an only child — a loner who liked hiding inside the giant grove of lilac trees at the end of my street and eavesdropping on people who walked past. It was my humble sanctuary, a fortress of intoxicating scent and cozy, hidden paths. Safe and unseen, I spent hours there bearing witness to the beautiful and the strange, the just and unjust.
In the fourth grade, my teacher introduced me to the book, “Harriet the Spy,” which I inhaled. I was stunned to find a version of myself on novelist Louise Fitzhugh’s pages. Harriet was a young girl and aspiring author who put stories and facts together in new ways. She was nosy, sure. But she developed the confidence to forge her own way of looking at the world and, by putting forth her own fierce ideas, she discovered a voice that was distinctly her own.
In the decades that followed that awful restaurant guide job — we all have to start somewhere — I went in search of my own inner Harriet. I didn’t set out to focus my journalism on outsiders and underdogs, but lo and behold, after a decade of writing about them, it finally dawned on me that those articles were always the ones I wrote best: The African refugee who squealed the first time she heard a Diet Coke clunking down a soda machine chute and shouted, “There is a person inside that machine!”
The gritty Galax, Va., furniture maker who took on China in the court of international trade to keep his factory going — because those [expletive!] Communists were not gonna tell him how to make furniture!
The teenager who grew up in the projects but had the backing of a powerful African-American community that frequented the neighborhood library where she worked as a page. When Salena Sullivan learned she was getting a full ride — to Harvard, no less — the elderly library patrons put down the newspapers they were reading and wept. The librarian, who was her mentor and best friend, screamed.
I have to tell you, I did some weeping and screaming myself. What a privilege it was, being paid to travel outside my own ZIP code, to bear witness, to hone my thoughts on these raw and complicated truths that I, and I alone, had noticed. As the writer Annie Dillard once put it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this: your own astonishment.” It’s a lesson worth applying to everything from journalism to nursing to theology.
Develop your own slant. Figure out what moves you and make that your life’s calling. Every time you feel the hair sticking up on the back of your neck, pay fierce attention.
The second thing I want to say to the little girl in the lilacs is this: Ditch the awful partner, the sooner the better. I kissed some seriously nasty frogs before I met a guy comfortable enough with his manhood to marvel at a sunset, and goofy enough to dance the robot backwards across the kitchen floor when I’m least expecting it — just to make me laugh.
Let me tell you why I believe that choosing who to partner with is the single-most important decision you’ll make: For a variety of complicated reasons dating back centuries if not millennia, women now comprise more than half the college student population but still only 20 percent of the country’s leadership positions. This, despite the fact that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability.
Staring down the barrel of 50, I am certain that I would not be as confident or competent a writer — or person — had I not married someone who has treated me his equal on everything from grocery shopping to laundry to kid-schlepping.
I’m a first-generation feminist, having grown up in a house where my mom did everything: She worked. She cooked and she cleaned. She hounded my dad on Friday evenings at the VFW bar so he would not drink away his paycheck before the groceries were bought. I’m not judging; my mom can stretch a dime farther than anyone I know, and she was a product of a very different time. Now 87, she still can’t figure out how I get away with NOT ironing my husband’s shirts.
Mom was widowed and in her 60s before she married the man of her dreams, a retiree who sculpted wooden birds and squirreled away his federal government pension so she’d be well provided for after his death. He bought her jewelry and during their weekly outings to the mall, he’d sneak away to pay phones to leave messages she could listen to later on their home phone. He sang: “I just called. . . To say. … I love you.”
Let me say it again: Life is fleeting. Only people who want the best for you should be on your team. Especially your home team.
My final takeaway for future me and for all you dear Mary Baldwin squirrels crouched among the lilacs: As much as you can, try not to obsess over money. As much as you can, spend your energy engaged in meaningful work that makes you happy and enriches your larger community — and the rewards, I promise, will eventually follow.
How much money and fame does one actually need to be content? In 2012, Princeton researchers calculated that, once a basic level of comfort is attained, true happiness is achieved not through the accumulation of stuff but by having the capacity to share meaningful experiences with people. Scientists have actually proven that you’re better served in most cases by underindulging rather than overindulging — by buying less for yourself and doing more for others.
Earlier in my career, while many of my ladder-climbing colleagues moved on to bigger salaries and more expensive cities, I dug my journalistic heels into getting to know the readers of southwest Virginia. The salary wasn’t great, and during the height of the recession and the Internet revolution, my colleagues and I went seven years without a raise. But my midsized city was a great place to raise kids, with beautiful mountain vistas and friendly people, many of them surprising and quirky. I did a story once on Roanoke’s ELL school bus driver, a refugee from a war-torn country who, along with his grown sons, had launched two successful startup businesses in town. Why did the Rwandan refugee still bother driving a school bus for such meager wages? I wanted to know.
I interviewed parents and teachers alike, but it wasn’t until I actually rode the bus for a couple of days that I understood why he considered the ELL kids his calling in life. A five-year-old wearing a bright pink coat and braids sidled up next to me on the bus, grabbed my arm, and took a deep breath — smelling me.
“Mmmmm,” she said. “You smell like Beyonce. You a little bit old. But I like you.”
I’m privileged to know my community through my work. When a big story breaks in my region, there’s a strong chance I’ll know some of the people involved, or at least know someone who knows someone. Degrees of separation can be bad when you want to dash into 7-Eleven to buy coffee cream in your pajama bottoms and see five people you know. But by and large, connectivity is what everyone craves — even the loners among us.
A writer friend told me recently, upon the sale of the proposal for my second book — which is set in a rural Virginia crossroads in the Jim Crow south — that I’d succeeded because I’d managed to make my “small” stories universal and therefore luminous and large. He marveled, “Every corner of the world is as big as the world itself.”
What he meant was, every place is as vibrant as the next — if you’re engaged in it. You’re here today with a much larger and more sophisticated sense of the world than I had almost three decades ago. You’ve spent four years or so honing your own distinctive voices. Now, it’s time to be heard.
Just don’t forget to season your own corner of the world — wherever it ends up being — with your own slant, that tilted way of looking at life that you and only you can provide. Find your own stand of lilac trees, be still amid them, and exhale.
Photos courtesy Mary Baldwin College, May 18, 2014