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________________________________________ 28 Nov, 1999 ___
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Table of Contents
1. Special Edition Article
This was sent to me by Darii, who had received it from Tanisha. You'll be
tempted to gloss over it, to skim to the end, or ignore it all together.
I understand. We're busy, and it's a long article. But wait... do
yourself a favor: if you don't have tim e to read this right this very
second, save it. At some later time, pull it out and read it to the very
end. Read it all the way through. Then save it, and read it again later
after the basement of your mind has subconsciously give you a little
perspectiv e. Thank you Darii, thank you Tanisha, and thank you Ms.
Quindlen. -- Diz
Anna Quindlen's Villanova Commencement Address
It's a great honor for me to be the third member of my family to receive
an honorary doctorate from this great university. It's a honor to follow
my great-Uncle Jim, who was a gifted physician, and my Uncle Jack, who is
a remarkable businessman.
Both of them could have told you something important about their
professions, about medicine or commerce. I have no specialized field of
interest or expertise, which puts me at a disadvantage, talking to you
today. I'm a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is all I know.
Don't ever confuse the two, your life and your work. The second is only
part of the first.
Don't ever forget what a friend once wrote Senator Paul Tsongas when the
senator decided not to run for reelection because he'd been diagnosed with
cancer: 'No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in
Don't ever forget the words my father sent me on a postcard last year: "If
you win the rat race, you're still a rat." Or what John Lennon wrote
before he was gunned down in the driveway of the Dakota: 'Life is what
happens while you are busy making other plans.'
You walk out of here this afternoon with only one thing that no one else
has. There will be hundreds of people out there with your same degree;
there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living.
But you will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life.
Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or
your life on a bus, or in a car, or at the computer. Not just the life of
your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but
People don't talk about the soul very much anymore. It's so much easier to
write a resume than to craft a spirit. But a resume is a cold comfort on a
winter night, or when you're sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you've
gotten back the test results and they're not so good.
Here is my resume. It is not what you just heard on that citation, proud
of that as I am. I am a good mother to three children. I have tried never
to let my profession stand in the way of being a good parent. I no longer
consider myself the center of the universe. I show up. I listen. I try to
I am a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make marriage vows mean
what they say. I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.
I am a good friend to my friends, and they to me. Without them, there
would be nothing to say to you today, because I would be a cardboard
cutout. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch. I show
up. I listen. I try to laugh.
I would be rotten, or at best mediocre at my job, if those other things
were not true. You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work
is all you are. So here's what I wanted to tell you today: get a life. A
real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck,
the larger house. Do you think you'd care so very much about those things
if you blew an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast at
Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a
breeze over Seaside Heights, a life in which you stop and watch how a red
tailed hawk circles over the water gap or the way a baby scowls with
concentration when she tries to pick up a cheerio with her thumb and first
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love
you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time you look
at your diploma, remember that you are still a student, still learning how
to best treasure your connection to others. Pick up the phone. Send an
e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your Mom. Hug your Dad.
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas in the
suburban neighborhood where you grew up; look at a full moon hanging
silver in a black, black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is the
best thing ever, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care
so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around.
Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to
charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister.
All of you want to do well. But if you do not do good, too, then doing
well will never be enough.
Live by the words of this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks: Exhaust the little
moment; soon it dies And be it gash or gold, it will not come again in
this identical disguise.
Life is short. Remember that, too. I've always known that. Or almost
always. I've been living with mortality for a quarter century, since my
mother died of ovarian cancer when she was 40 and I was 19.
And this is what I learned: that knowledge of our mortality is the
greatest gift God ever gives us. It is so easy to waste our lives: our
days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the color
of the azaleas, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of
our kids eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and
disappears and rises again.
It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock
ticking. So many of us changed our lives cataclysmically when we heard a
biological clock ticking. But that sound is a murmur compared to the
gonging of mortality.
Maybe there are those of you in this room who have come to feel the way I
have. And you've come to feel that way for a very difficult or demanding
reason. One day you were walking around worrying about whether you had
anything to wear to a party and reminding yourself to call your roommate.
And then you were in the shower lathering up, or you were lying on a
doctor's table, or the phone rang. And your world suddenly divided, as my
world did many, many years ago. It divided into before and after.
Before for me was my freshman year of college, when I found myself able
for the first time in my life to swear at meals and not be reprimanded, to
go out at midnight and not have to tell anyone where I was going. After
was the beginning of what would have been my sophomore year, when I found
myself out of school, making meatloaf and administering morphine in a
development house in the suburbs.
It is amazing how much you can learn in one year. As surely as St. Paul
being knocked off his mule into the dust and discovering God, I had a rude
awakening. I'm not sure I learned anything much about mortality, or death,
or pain, or even love, although in the years since, that one horrible year
has given me perspective on all those things that I wouldn't have had
But I learned something enduring, in a very short period of time, about
life. And that was that it was glorious, and that you had no business
taking it for granted. Before and after for me was not just before my
mother's illness, and after her death. It was the dividing line between
seeing the world in black and white, and in Technicolor. The lights came
on for the darkest possible reason. And I went back to school and I looked
around at all the kids I knew who found it kind of a drag and who weren't
sure if they could really hack it and who thought life was a bummer. And I
knew that I had undergone a sea of change. Because I was never again going
to be able to see life as anything except a great gift.
It's ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have
more time than ever to remember it. My grandparents had to work long, long
hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women
who worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home too, with two
bosses, the one paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn't.
It was tough life. I still remember the narrow groove worn into one of my
grandmother's front teeth, the groove that appears there when you've used
that tooth for years and years to bite off your thread from your sewing
There are new generations of immigrants now, who work that hard, but those
of us who are second and third and fourth generation are surrounded by
high tech appliances, nice cars, family rooms, pools? the kinds of things
our grandparents thought only rich people had. Yet somehow, instead of
rejoicing, we've found the glass half-empty. Our jobs take too much out of
us and don't pay enough. Our children are an awful responsibility. We're
expected to pick the kids up at preschool and run the microwave at home.
C'mon, let be honest. We have an embarrassment of riches. Life is good. I
don't mean in cosmic way. I never think of my life, or my world, in any
big cosmic way. I think of it in all its small component parts: the
daffodils, the azaleas, the feeling of one my kid's hands tucked inside
mine, the way my husband looks when he reads with the reading lamp behind
him, fettuccine alfredo, fudge, 'Gone With the Wind,' 'Pride and
Prejudice.' The fuzz on the edge of my daughter's ear. Everyone who has
ever read to an AIDS patient, or cuddled a boarder baby, or taken flowers
around to someone who hasn't had a visitor that day, knows that this is
true. Life is made up of moments, small pieces of silver amidst long
stretches of tedium. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned,
but particularly in lives as busy as the one most of us lead now, that
won't happen. We have to teach ourselves how to live, really live.
That's the biggest, and the best part of your education.
I learned to live many years ago. Something really, really bad happened to
me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had my druthers, it
would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what,
today, seems to be the hardest lesson of all.
I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that it is
not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.
I learned to look at all the good in the world and to try to give some of
it back because I believed in it completely and utterly. And I tried to do
that, in part, by telling others what I had learned. By telling them this:
Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby's ear. Read
in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of
life as a terminal illness because if you do you will live it with joy and
passion as it ought to be lived.
Well, you can learn all those things, out there, if you get a real life, a
full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too, a life of love
and laughs and a connection to other human beings. Just keep your eyes and
ears open. Here you could learn in the classroom. There the classroom is
everywhere. The exam comes at the very end. No man ever said on his
deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.
I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island maybe 15
years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless
survive in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden
supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his
schedule, panhandling the boulevard when the summer crowds were gone,
sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from
the police amidst the Tilt a Whirl and the Cyclone and some of the other
But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing
the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he
had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why
didn't he go to one of the shelters? Why didn't he check himself into the
hospital for detox?
And he just stared out at the ocean and said, 'Look at the view, young
lady. Look at the view.'
And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look
at the view. And that's the last thing I have to tell you today, words of
wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere
to be. Look at the view. You'll never be disappointed.
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