2006 Commencement

Baccalaureate Address
By Robin Blaetz, Associate Professor of Film Studies
May 27, 2006

Good Evening--President Creighton, trustees, honored guests, distinguished colleagues, families, friends, and especially, you, the members of the class of 2006.

We are here tonight to celebrate you and to formally launch you into the lives that await you, into the lives for which all of us, to varying degrees, have been preparing you for all or part of the past 20 years or more. The thoughts that I want to share with you this evening take for granted that we have equipped you with the tools that you will need to take my advice. I assume that the lessons that you have learned will guide you--from the earliest when you had to be told over and over not to play with the electrical outlets (a particular challenge to one of my own children …) to those learned in college, resulting in your ever-increasing abilities to perceive, to analyze, to challenge, to judge, and to appreciate.

Let me back up a bit to share with you my thoughts when first hearing that I had been chosen to address you this evening. I spoke the day that I received the invitation with my youngest brother (who happens to be the director of a nonprofit theater in Los Angeles); we mused about what I would say to you. My brother replied that I should, of course, say what I had been saying to you all for the past four years (and saying to him for the past 30 years) since what I had been saying had obviously led to my selection. I agreed with him and we then worked at reducing years' worth of conversations into an eight-minute talk, working around some platitudes while holding on to others. We both remembered an episode that had occurred in the late 1980s, involving this same brother and my father. (You will notice that I keep returning to my family since, as I hope you have learned by now, there is nothing that matters more.) During the first year after my brother's graduation from college, when he was living on the Upper East Side in New York, working unhappily at a public relations firm, he wrote a letter to my father. He described a serendipitous experience as an actor in a play during his last semester at school, which had so impressed him that he wondered if he had in fact missed the boat in settling for the career that suited his communications major. The letter that he received in return has become infamous in my family. My very reserved father wrote of his dreams as a young man, about how the Second World War had altered the current of the world and his particular life so much that the only road that he had felt open to him was to simply follow in his father's footsteps into a world of business, regardless of the fact that he had imagined himself as a doctor or, to all of our surprise, an FBI agent. He ended the letter with the sentence: "Do it." Well, my brother took the letter to the copy center around the corner and had that final line blown up into a poster, which he put on his wall and used as inspiration for changing his life completely.

So, to you, Mount Holyoke class of 2006, I say: do it; go forward in the affirmative. As you enter the world, say yes much more often than you say no and don't worry about regrets. Remember that there are no "wrong" turns in life; there are only turns and each one is what makes up your life. Just be aware of what you have learned every time. Notice particularly that you frequently learn the most from what society judges to be most inconsequential. Thinking back over your years at Mount Holyoke, remember how often it was a casual conversation with an adviser, a teacher, or a roommate that opened you and allowed the material of a course to take shape in your mind rather than sitting, meaningless, on the surface. As you leave the cocoon of this campus for the larger world, don't miss the trees for the forest.

Be open to what every person whom you meet offers of herself or himself, whether it is the person who cleans your house or the person you most admire in the world. Treat everyone you encounter with equal attention and kindness.

Be physically present in all that you do. Don't just "get to" a meeting or a class; enjoy yourself in the walk or the ride, really feel the sting of the snow, look at the faces of the people on the train (and marvel at the miraculous variety, at the fashion, at whatever intrigues you). Just be engaged.

More specifically, respond in the affirmative when life surprises you. Say yes when a homeless person or a charity asks you for money, no matter how little you can afford. Say yes when someone close to you needs your time and attention, even if you have theater tickets or a meeting to attend. Say yes to the chance to travel somewhere new, even if you are afraid. Say yes when a relationship or a child comes into your life before you feel entirely ready.

Be guided by faith in the notion that every single thing that you do, every conversation, every lived perception, is the very stuff of your life. If you are attentive in and to time, it is impossible to waste it.

Many of you will know a poem by the recently deceased centenarian poet Stanley Kunitz called "The Layers." Near the end of the poem, he writes:

In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."

We live in a time in which fear and negation rule, made worse by the fact that this negativity is intentionally produced as a mode of social and political control. The conservative thinker Kevin Philips, who was active in the Reagan years and has become alarmed at the current state of U.S. culture, has gone so far as to write in his recent book, American Theocracy, that there are elements in our society that want to impose Taliban-like restrictions on women. (We only need look as far as South Dakota's attempt to ban all abortion rights to see the evidence of this impulse.) Fight against those who would say no for you; fight against negativity; fight against the inclination to be passive. Go forward with courage and passion and do everything that you have the opportunity to do and everything that you feel called to do, whether anyone but you approves. Furthermore, make it part of your life's work to allow others who have not had the benefit of your four glorious years at Mount Holyoke to live in the affirmative as well. Enable others, whether you choose to work actively for the benefit of those who need your efforts or make it a point to speak out against injustice in your daily life every time you see it.

Finally, when you write to tell me about how you are, I don't want to hear a classical Hollywood-style narrative--clean, straightforward, and easy to comprehend. I want to be challenged by a complex, multilayered, ambiguous story; I don't want John Ford, I want Jean-Luc Godard. So, go out and accumulate a lot of litter in your lives; then live fully in the spaces that you have made and enjoy yourself and your life with every minute of time that you have been given.

Congratulations to you all, and good night.

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