Life promises nothing. And everything.
An earnest young man named Tristan called me Wednesday night on behalf of the University of Tennessee’s Arts and Sciences Annual Telefund, he said. I found a mailer from my alma mater in the P.O. box last week, so I knew this was coming and already planned to give. Perfect timing, this call, as I was sitting on the sofa after work doing mainly nothing except unwind with the news and a glass of wine in hand. It’s somehow reassuring that the familiar ‘974’ exchange still belongs to UT—I knew exactly who it was.
Last year I gave the student solicitor an earful of unsolicited advice. He may have caught me at a bad moment, I can’t recall. But I do remember thinking, if you’re intercepting my down time like this then you’ll hear a few words for my trouble. I asked him about his major (business). I said, go take English. No, wait. Go take English literature. You’ll need the writing skills, even if you think you won’t in whatever professional life you anticipate on the outside.
To his credit, he was polite and reverential, and admitted writing was not his strongest suit, that his dad helped proofread his college papers even now. I gave him some names, which he said he was taking down. For all I know he was making a note on my Permanent Record, This one is a whack job.
Poor Tristan: he was brave enough to dial me up even with that red flag flying.
I exercised more self-restraint with this young man. He asked how I got to Vermont from Tennessee. Long story, I said, involving an awful divorce. I’ll spare you the details. Fair enough, but if I may ask, he persisted, can you tell me how you’ve used your degree in anthropology?
The short answer, I told him, is not at all. The longer and more truthful one goes like this: my degree helped me survive at a moment in time when I thought I might not, because all those classes in anthropology and other disciplines conspired to help make me a stronger writer. It is how I earn my keep these days, writing and editing digital copy for a burgeoning marketing agency here in Vermont.
Ah, said Tristan: so you moved to Vermont to work for a marketing agency?
No, I told him, I moved to Vermont to teach ballet. I have spent much of my life immersed in classical ballet, but that is a story for another day.
He understood, he said, and would not take any more of my time. He told me he was from Michigan, enjoys his life as a UT student, and knows Vermont because he comes here in winter to ski; it is a beautiful corner of the world, we agreed. Then he ticked off a list of recent improvements to campus and insisted “without the support of alumnae like you” they would be impossible (now he was reading from a script). Have you visited campus lately?
Two summers ago, I said, I drove through.
Did you know they’re tearing down Presidential? (He is no longer reading.) It’s about damn time, I said: I lived in one of those brutalist high-rise buildings as a freshman and remember it only as a noisy and impersonal assault to the senses. We both laughed. Seriously, he said—you should come see it—there’s only a huge pile of rubble now.
I’d like that, Tristan; maybe this summer. I asked him to make my gift to the Anthropology Endowment in honor of one Charles Faulkner, professor emeritus. He thanked me and said goodnight.
To my unrelenting desire to dance Mouse King in somebody’s Nutcracker, I think I’ll add, deliver a college commencement speech. I have a much better shot at Mouse King because some small civic ballet company somewhere might actually find itself desperate for one, although I may be too short to fill those shoes. But I’ll never give a commencement address because I lack the other kind of stature: fame and notoriety. Still, I have so much to say.
My chat with Tristan got me thinking about the varied chapters of my life so far, and the impossibility of connecting the dots that will define the rest of one’s life when one is only just graduating from college. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was Tristan’s age—connecting those dots is an exercise in futility, and anyway it doesn’t matter. Standing there in your cap and gown, giddy with your accomplishments thus far, you have no way of knowing what lies ahead. If you chose a career for which specialized training was essential—you’ll practice law, or medicine, for example—it’s not unreasonable to expect some pieces to fall into place as you imagined they might.
But most people I knew when I stood on that threshold were still putting together the pieces. I dealt with my own uncertainty by postponing decision making for a while, plowing headlong into graduate school with leftover undergrad momentum. I was married by then, and a surprise adoption changed my plans near the end of my coursework, a plot twist I found delightful and challenging in its own right. Full-time parent of a difficult child: it was not in the blueprint (by then I had zeroed in on a few career possibilities, none ever realized as fate would have it). Nor could I have predicted returning full time to classical ballet as a teacher might insinuate itself into the child rearing landscape (I forgot to tell young Tristan I used anthropology every day of the week in the ballet classroom, giving my students lessons in anatomy with a full-size anatomical skeleton—who knew coursework in human osteology would prove helpful in the ballet studio?).
Nor could I imagine that in the space of only a few months it would all vanish: a comfortable, settled, affluent lifestyle a couple of decades in the make completely gone. Gone.
Nobody gets through life without a few curve balls, maybe even a direct hit to the noggin once in a while. But what do you do when somebody yanks the rug out from under you wholesale?
At first, you gnash your teeth and wail and lash out at the universe: you need answers—why is this happening to me? The universe is strangely quiet. When you tire of waiting, you finally blow your nose and sweep your greying hair out of your face, push up your sleeves, and get to work. Next comes the hard part: you may suffer a little humiliation while you’re figuring out Plan B. And Plan C, D, or even Plan E…. But this exercise is so much better than the alternative, after all. And anyway, you have no choice.
When I was puzzling through a squirrelly child-rearing problem years ago, a wise friend reminded me to use past behavior to predict future behavior. Superimpose this idea on life’s bigger mysteries, and you get something like this: use past successes to predict future successes. Your package of skills helped you accomplish much: now use them to accomplish something more, even if the shape of that thing, whatever it is—could be writing for a marketing agency, who knows?—remains out of focus for now. The not-knowing is anguishing, to be sure. But uncertainty holds the promise of possibilities.
My commencement speech would go something like that. I’d also urge my young listeners to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities when they pop up, even if they look different than you thought they might. And when you make poor choices, I’d tell them, admit your mistakes, chalk them up to personal growth, and move on. Learn how to apologize if the situation calls for it. And never say ‘no problem’ when somebody says, ‘thank you.’
All the television news outlets have been airing mash-up reels of commencement speeches lately, famous folk standing becapped-and-gowned at the podium, a few notorious ones, advising hopeful throngs of the newly-degreed on this special occasion that for many marks the transition into adulthood, or ‘the real world,’ anyway. Because I’m such a fan of fifth grade humor the one who speaks loudest to me is Will Farrell, a fearless performer who had the audacity to channel Whitney Huston’s standard, I Will Always Love You, to a hopeful crowd of University of Southern California grads. It was a cringe-worthy performance they’ll forever remember. I’ve never been a Will Farrell devotee, but give me a little irreverent humor on a solemn occasion and I’m in (anybody who lacks humor is suspicious in my book). He was nothing if not earnest, like the young man who called me the other night. And in moments of seriousness, he was credible. It was a perfect sendoff, full of hope and possibilities. I leave you with the juiciest morsel.
To those of you graduates sitting out there who have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with your life, congratulations. For many of you who maybe don’t have it all figured out, it’s okay. That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut, keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.—Will Farrell, 2017