I’m so happy to be here with you today. When I was trying to think of something useful to say to you I was remembering how I felt when I first came to college, a long time ago now. There were lots of social events where it seemed everyone knew how to fall into fascinating conversations except me; the thing I remember most vividly is trying to hide myself, to hide my own strangeness, somehow to speak and move and act as if I were someone else, someone much more confident and capable and at ease in the world, someone much less weird than I was. Maybe I would have laughed scornfully or rejected it at the time, but on a deeper level I would have been so grateful if someone had told me: You are your strangeness. Your strangeness is precious. Everything alive in you comes from it. Don’t give it up.
This made me remember two people dear to me and how it was for them when they went to college: one was a baker’s daughter who went to Brown and learned suddenly that she was poor--who spoke with a beautiful broad Boston accent no one else had there, who by December had stripped herself of it, of her mother tongue, so she spoke with the accent of her roommate, an heiress from Chicago. I have a pretty good ear for any faint echo of a Massachusetts accent, being from there myself; but she had erased those echos so completely I didn’t recognize her. The other person I thought of came from Cambridge to UMass Amherst, my alma mater; her parents were Harvard professors, one a Nobel prizewinner, and I watched her undertake a similar but opposite kind of stripping of her identity, putting all privilege as far into the background as she could, trying to pretend she was one of us who didn’t know where Pakistan was, who had to give up doing the laundry for a week if we bought a pitcher of beer. It seems to me from the outside, and from my own memories, that this bargain is deceptive; it says Give up your strangeness and I will give you comfort and love, but it doesn’t mention the price you have to pay. Giving up your strangeness makes you sad; it makes you empty and vulnerable and lonely somewhere, because you’re not even familiar company to yourself anymore. It makes your relationships false and your view of the world skewed; it deprives the people around you of the richness and complexity of you as you really are. It’s a habit many people start right about where you are now, as they leave home and go into the world; and as you get older it can become a mask that turns into your face, so you can’t take it off. As Martin Luther King said in 1963, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” So maybe the most important suggestion I can make to you this afternoon is: Have the courage to be your strange self. Which is another way of saying: Have the courage not to hide from life as it is. Have the courage to live.
One big difference between my first college experience and yours here at Sarah Lawrence is that if you look around this room, almost everyone you see is strange. That’s why you’re here. What’s the phrase in the brochures? ‘You’re different and so are we.’ A huge part of this is Sarah Lawrence’s deep and unique respect for the arts; one of the things I love about my colleagues here is that there is an art buried in almost all of them, even the scholars of medieval Spanish literature, even the sociologists. Artists are strange because you can’t make art without your strangeness; if you reach inside yourself and all you find are television shows and the regular things people say to each other most of the time, you can’t make art. It’s impossible.
But here’s a secret they probably don’t mention in the brochures: artists can also be a pain in the ass. I’ve been a writer for a little while now and have sat in many rooms so thick with artists’ narcissism and competitiveness and fashionable cynicism and rudeness you can hardly breathe. Sometimes going to a party or an opening or a class full of artists can make you wish for people who’ve long ago murdered their strangeness but know how to say Please and Thank you and Hello and How are you. My hope is that you can make a revolution at Sarah Lawrence and redeem the social reputation of artists all over the world with what we might call radical courtesy. Let’s try it now: Please. Thank you. Hello. How are you.
For Part Two of this plan I need a volunteer. (Demonstrate passing with no acknowledgment, the sad feeling it makes in your chest. Demonstrate the minimal acknowledgment. Then demonstrate the turn.)
The most sustaining communities I’ve ever been part of consisted of strange people who knew how to love each other. Now by love I don’t mean sexual love, although that does occasionally occur in these contexts, or even the love you might feel for family or friends. I mean the kind of love that’s less a spontaneous feeling than a way of conducting yourself in the world. When I was in high school I was a singer, and my community was the other kids who sang, which was not a high- status activity in the high school as a whole. We used to travel to do concerts in other towns and stop at McDonalds on the way home and burst into an a capella version of the Rachmaninoff Ave Maria when we’d finished our cheeseburgers. We were geeks. So we faced a fair amount of name-calling from the community at large; but within our own community there was a sustaining love--not because there weren’t people among us who were egotistical or cruel or irritating, but because we valued each other’s strangeness. I feel this now as a lesbian; if I’m in a room filled with straight people (which is different from heterosexual people, which we’ll get to in a moment) and a lesbian walks in, even if she is a Mormon Republican, in some rough but insistent way I feel tied to her, and I say hello to her. When I was in graduate school and helped blockade a building to protest investments in South Africa, that community sleeping on the steps in April was full of people who elbowed you by mistake and told stupid jokes and offended your sensibilities; it was also full of that same rough love, which still warms me to remember. You could make that here. You could sit together four years from now at your graduation and say, God I’m so glad I’m finally getting away from these people who are so much less smart and interesting and and aware than I am; or you could look around and say, I love these people. Your choice. It seems to me number two is much more fun.
All right, back to straight people. Really all these words are becoming useless, traveling into a new world of social relationships as we are, so if you could invent new words while you’re here, we would all be grateful. But for now, for me, a heterosexual person is different from a straight person: a heterosexual couple consists of a man, however you want to define that, and a woman, however you want to define that; and a straight couple consists of a man and a woman who never hold hands except when they’re walking by a gay pride parade. The best heterosexual people are queer, which is a synonym for strange, which means they haven’t murdered vital parts of themselves to be who they are. They’re not afraid. So by this definition there are plenty of lesbians and gay men who have no interest in being queer, who are straight, who are as deeply invested as their more obvious counterparts in policing the boundaries of correct behavior, in other people and in themselves. But what is a man in the first place? What is a woman? If you could think and talk and learn about this without succumbing to fear, and to the mockery and exclusion and hierarchies of virtue that tend to follow in fear’s wake, you’ll be making for yourselves and for all of us a community that deserves to be called a home.
Part of what happens when you go to college, if you let it, is that you unfold; you realize you are not everyone, but a very particular someone, and you find out who that is and what the world has planned for you, and you decide whether to go along with those plans or not. You find out whether you’re a man or a woman or neither or both, a homo hetero retro or omnisexual, or none of the above, black or brown or beige or olive or yellow or red or pink or white, a person of color or a person of no color or a person of several colors or a person whose color is invisible or overlooked--upper class or middle class or working class or lower class or underclass or under middle class or middle working class or something none of these labels is subtle enough for. When I went to college I thought I was anyone, or everyone, or no one; after a little while away, reading the newspapers, an activity I recommend, I realized I was a citizen of the United States, and that that carried very specific meanings--and that I was a woman, and that that explained a lot of what I had experienced in the world--and that I was white, and that that carried privileges I’d taken advantage of all my life without ever being aware of them. Eventually I realized I was a lesbian, although I devoted myself for a little while to resisting that particular unfolding. Resistance to unfolding can take many forms, and you should watch for them; mine was trying to drown my strangeness with alcohol, but some people do it with drugs, with cynicism, with mockery, with not believing in anything, with bad food and sleeplessness, with hypochondria, with complaining, with too much work or not enough, with virtue, with isolation. I remember reading an article by Vivian Gornick in college, a review of a book by Joan Didion; she said that Didion wrote so well that it seemed as though everything really was empty and hopeless, that the only honesty and maturity was to admit that. But Gornick disagreed. At the end of the article she said, It’s never the case that nothing matters; It’s only that the courage to look at what matters is failing.
The beauty of unfolding here is that you can borrow and share courage, because you’re not alone. Some of the people I love best in the world did not go to college, and I always think of them at this time of year; among other things, I think of how difficult it is to do that unfolding without a community. When I first went to college I met lots of people from the New Jersey suburbs, and suddenly realized I had grown up in a town in Massachusetts by the sea; when I missed the taste of salt in the air that first fall, it was a way of coming to know the place I come from for the first time. I met people whose parents did not treat them with violence, and realized my parents had; once I found the comrades and the courage to face that, I had to leave behind the illusion that I was someone else, the person I’d pretended to be, the person who didn’t know the things I knew.
“There’s no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher said in 1987, sounding one of the groundnotes for the world you’re preparing to enter; but as you’re about to find out, that isn’t true. Society is real; it presses against you as palpably as wind. It can tell you you’re god’s gift to the world, or it can tell you you’re not much--it can tell you your job is to fulfill your potential, or it can tell you your job is to serve other people so they can fulfull their potential--it can tell you what you think is valuable, or it can tell you what you think is crazy and should never be spoken out loud. It can push you toward viciousness even if you’re not vicious alone, or push you toward courage even if alone you feel scared. A community is a small society, and you’re in one here now, where people call the dean of the college by her first name. I know someone who lives in a Manhattan apartment who had a three-year-old guest visit, a guest who lives in a mansion in Princeton. He walked in and looked around and said, “Someday I’d like to live in a house this small.” When his mother asked why, he said “Because then I could see everybody.” Here you are, here we all are, in this small house where we can see everybody. Whether that sustains you or drives you crazy is a fabric we make, with our small decisions and behaviors, every day. Jean-Paul Sartre said, famously, “L’enfer, c’est les autres”--Hell is other people. That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another way, Walt Whitman’s, from a poem called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings--on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river,
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away,
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them,
The certainty of others--the life, love, sight, hearing of others.
Everyone here is smart enough. You don’t need to lie awake at night worrying about that. But are we brave enough to love each other? Maybe, maybe not. And what a place this could be if it turns out we are.
The point of unfolding isn’t to spend the rest of your life gazing in the mirror at the result; it’s to figure out what your part is in the work to be done. And there’s a lot of it waiting. One way to discover this is to go outside. People who sit in front of screens all the time become depressed; and you’re at a particularly vulnerable time for that, as a psychiatrist I know tells me, because people break down at points she calls The Three Ms: Marriage, Military, and Matriculation. Go outside. Walk under the trees and notice the many strange beautiful ways the earth says ‘oak,’ and how they don’t all try to be the same. Pass people and turn and say hello and ask them how they are. Write a conference paper about school desegregation in Yonkers, or about police violence in New York City, or about the wars of the twenty-first century and the resistances to them, or about race and class at Sarah Lawrence. Go outside. Cynicism makes you bored and tired; love makes you curious, and you’ve come to the right place if you expected nourishment and support for your passionate curiosity. Cynicism makes you small, so you laugh when someone says something genuine or awkward; love makes you large, so you wait that moment to listen a little longer, before turning away and letting the door to possibility close. Love makes you forget yourself, in ways that drugs and alcohol can only aspire to.
Go outside of what you already know, what you think you can do; talk to people who scare you, and have the courage to stay when it gets uncomfortable. It will--that can be a sign you’re on the right track. Have the courage to do that rare, difficult, embarrassing, beautiful thing: to learn. Be the strange person in class or conversation who says, “I’m so sorry, that was such a stupid thing to say.” Who says “I’m not really sure about this, but here’s what I think so far.” Who says “I don’t know. What do you think?” Who says “At the beginning of this conversation I thought that, but now I don’t think it anymore.” That’s learning. Sometimes it’s easier to do this with teachers. But don’t forget also to do it with each other.
I have a son who’ll be a senior at Bronx Science in ten days or so, and I told him I’d be here today and asked him, What do you think I should say? His first answer was, I have no fucking clue. But then he said: No, wait. Tell them not to major in themselves. He’s in this process of applying to colleges that you all are finished with now--in Manhattan it starts in about second grade--and he’s exhausted. People are always telling him to work harder, and people will be telling you that too--so to balance that, let me say, Take your time. Anything worthwhile, anything alive, takes time. There’s a beautiful novel some of you may know called The Known World, by a man named Edward P Jones, whose writing I expect people will be reading for a long time--in the Times today--that’s your hometown paper now, check it out--there’s a review of a new book of his, in which there’s a character who makes tapestries, and it takes a long time. Someone asks her why she doesn’t do something that takes less time, and she answers, “My tapestry ain’t a race.” The man she’s talking to, her young husband, points out that most women do work like that to make a living. “Well,” Anne Perry says, that’s the character’s name--”I do it cause I can’t help myself.”
In a lot of the world, as Bernice Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock says, if you do things that way, “You gon’ catch hell if you don’t do it the way they say do it”--it’s my experience that Sarah Lawrence can provide a little better haven than that, and I welcome you here, to the beautiful struggle of figuring out in good company what’s yours to do, what you have to do because you can’t help yourself. “Success, recognition, and conformity,” Martin Luther King wrote, “are the bywords of the modern world, where everyone seems to crave the anesthetizing security of being identified with the majority.” You have a chance not to do that now, to make yourself another way. To use the privilege of being here not to think that you’re better than people who aren’t here, not to think that manual labor is inferior to intellectual labor, although most of the culture around you will say that--but to learn. To understand not only that things can change, but that they must. And to learn what your part is in that beautiful, difficult process. I wish you good luck in it.
Here are my last suggestions: Eat vegetables. Get some exercise. Get enough sleep. Get at least *some* sleep. Do not! drink too much and get sick where you live so that people who work here have to clean up after you. Make sure your alarm clock is in good working order. Turn around and say hello to each other. Hello to you. Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.