Posted on June 3, 2012 by Christopher Thrall

Click here to read the Convocation Address by Marina Endicott and view pictures from moments throughout the day. Congratulations, Augustana Class of 2012!

Congratulations to our graduating class of 2012!

Convocation Address
Marina Endicott

Creative Writing Instructor at Augustana
Two time Giller Prize Nominee
Winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean

I believe I’m now supposed to talk about ‘dreams’, ‘journeys,’ and ‘windows-slash-doors of opportunity.’ In my role as creative writing instructor here at Augustana, I have compiled a short list of metaphors, mostly culled from pop songs, for you to chew over while I talk:

Life is a highway
Spread your wings and take to the sky
I believe that children are the future
I hope you dance…
Don’t stop believing
I hope you’ve had the time of your life…

Convocation speeches were invented, according to Garry Trudeau, in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the wild until they have been properly sedated.

I didn’t want to go to my own BA graduation, thirty years ago. But my dear mother made me—wait, I have to go back a little in time to set this one up.

When I was six years old, my mother discovered that she had breast cancer. We had to leave my father’s Anglican parish in Fernie, BC, so she could have treatment in Vancouver. This monumental change became the catalyst for a family decision that my father should go back to grad school, first to do a PhD in psychology, then to law school…he was in law school when I was in high school, and articling when I went to university.

Anyway, as the time of my graduation approached my mother had a bad mammogram, and she phoned to tell me that she wanted to attend my graduation with me, because she didn’t think she’d be around long enough for any of her other children to graduate. I did go, of course, wearing this same bright green hood, and sat through interminable speeches, of which I don’t recall one word. What I do remember about the day is my mother, and my fear for her.

When I spoke to her this morning—she’s now 83, and in ripe good health—I reminded her of that and she said, Oh that was a lovely day, you looked so beautiful! I was so proud of you!

Graduation day can be tough on the parents. We go to the ceremony as fully-employed parents and we come home jobless. (But perhaps with a basement tenant.) And I guess the theory behind convocation speeches is that you have all this education now—but you may still be lacking a couple of rules for living that we have one last chance to hammer into your heads.

I’ve never been comfortable with the giving of advice. Even in class, I don’t really like to teach, to hand down the right way to go about things: I think there are a lot of right ways to go about writing, to go about studying, to go about being human.

When my children were small, I was going away on a reading tour or something and leaving them with my husband, and I thought we’d better have some rules to put on the fridge so he could point to them and say, See? No biting, it’s a rule.

But not being comfortable with rule setting either (I can always see the force of the other side’s argument—“But she needed biting”), I got my children to help make up the rules. It took all afternoon, as we argued and discarded possibilities. In the end we agreed on just two:

1. Be kind.
2. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.

Those two seemed to carry within them every other rule.

Be Kind: this one is obvious. It contains all the great rules, the law and the prophets, the ten commandments, the golden rule and Mrs DoAsYouWouldBeDoneBy. But it’s worth restating, as the basis of all human rights legislation and common law: When you have a choice, be kind. It’s self-serving, in the end. It’s sensible: kindness breeds kindness. It’s easier than thinking up inventive revenges. It’s right.

We needed “When it’s time to go, it’s time to go,” because my son had great enthusiasms and never wanted to leave—to the point of pitching a serious fit each time we had to leave a friend’s house, or the park, or the post office.

But eventually, no matter how much you’ve been enjoying the unlimited chocolate milk, the small classes, the personal attention from professors, the challenging, innovative curriculum founded on the liberal arts and sciences, and the “experiential learning in wilderness and international environments,” eventually, it is going to be time to go.

You can take those rules as shallow as you please, or dig down: it is always, deeply, always important, in every field, in every part of our lives, to find love and receive it and give it—to be kind to each other in small things and in large.

And eventually, eventually, even if not before your other children’s graduations, it will be time to go.

I’ve been driving to Camrose for five years now—at first, a seven hour commute from and to Calgary, now the useful decompression-chamber hour from Edmonton. I love driving, and I love the meditative state that driving induces: physically alert, focused, but not mentally engaged in the physical task, so the mind is quiet and thoughtful. I’ve had several epiphanies while driving and the most recent is this: Change = Life

I know. The sky is blue. I take my epiphanies as they come.

But look, that’s not a sentence: it’s a formula, an exact expression of reality. They’re synonyms. I don’t know how to say it to convey what I mean! That life, even Life with a capital L, is not a noun but a verb; not a state but an action, a continuous action. The change that we fear so much (and so rationally) is in fact utterly necessary: IS the life we are living.

Life = Change, and the great thing is, we can’t see the future. Which leads to a lot of surprises. Whatever you think is going to happen in the next few years, what does happen will be different. You will be surprised. It’s one of the main reasons to go on living.

And it’s all right to be excited—especially now! You don’t have to be nervous all the time.
A couple of years ago I was interviewed for More magazine—for an article on late bloomers. I was surprised, I was taken aback—I’d always considered myself a prodigy.
I wish for you to be both—the prodigies you are now to us, to your glowing families; and later, your blooming into something you cannot now expect.

I have one last rule to suggest. A student once asked his teacher Ikkyu, a fifteenth century Zen master, to sum up the highest wisdom. Must have been convocation day. The master responded to this gigantic question with a single word scratched in the sand: “Attention.”
The student wasn’t satisfied and asked him to elaborate.

Ikkyu wrote: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

Attention is a very difficult task. We want to glaze over, as some of you may be glazing over even now. It’s easier for children and for students, still gathering, gathering information, than it is for adults.

David Foster Wallace, in his heart-breaking commencement speech a few years ago, before he committed suicide, said, “It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”

He’s famous as the bard of boredom, the poet laureate of office workers. A brilliant writer, an early prodigy, he put in his time in the department of Internal Revenue and knew what boredom could be. His insight and advice, in the end, is that the chief boon of a liberal arts education is the ability to choose what you think about as you stand in line, as you shop for groceries after a long slogging day of dealing with the public; to make use of your university education to keep your mind both alert and sane.

My students over the last five years of teaching at Augustana have kept my mind alert and sane, and they’ve been a great pleasure to me. Teaching has sustained me while I continued to write—to do my true work—and my students have added to that work immeasurably.

As well as the pleasure of being with you all, Augustana has given me a gift, one that I didn’t expect from a university: it has allowed me to carve out a small room, unbothered, to be myself. I think it’s given the same gift to each of you. Perhaps it has even helped you to become yourself.

It’s that mysteriously better-defined self that you’ll be marching out of here, out into the wild world. It’s your self that will go with you into everything you do in future, all the varieties and vagaries of life and career and surprises that will befall, and become, you.

In the meantime, I will be kind, and invoke Rule 2:
When it’s time to go, dear students, it’s time to go!

Thank you.

You can view more photos of the day – plus weird and wacky pictures from the Alumni Photo Booth! – on the U of A Augustana Facebook page.


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