May 16, 2010
President Bettison-Varga, Scripps College trustees, faculty, staff, parents, grandparents, friends, and above all, graduates, it is an honor to be on your prestigious and beautiful campus.
My mother and I were struck recently by the theme Dr. Bettison-Varga selected for her inauguration: The Genius of Women. From everything we have discovered about Scripps College, your school is a model for cultivating genius in women. And we’ve also realized, as have so many others, that this cultivation is a matter of paramount concern, not just for women’s lives, but for the world itself.
Like you, I also graduated from a women’s college: Columbia College in South Carolina. When I was sitting where you are now, I assure you, that no part of my brain was entertaining the thought that one day, say twelve years later, I would stand behind a podium and deliver half the commencement address, and that the other half would be delivered by my mother. Nor did it enter into my head that one day I would write half a book, and the other half would be written by my mother. In fact, the day I graduated I felt lost.
I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was a history major whose career plan had recently collapsed in a true crash and burn fashion. It had left me dazed, confused, and depressed. If someone had suggested to me on my graduation day that I would become a writer, it have would be like suggesting I’d go off to NASA and become an astronaut. But that is the great thing about life: you dream and scheme, and of course you should, but in the end life will surprise you in some way.
Allow me to tell you how I got surprised.
In the corner of a painting by Paul Gauguin, you can find three, timeless questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Frankly, the first two didn’t seem that pressing while I was in college, the first two didn’t seem that pressing while I was in college, but the one about where I was going, that one got my full attention during my junior year as I began to feel some pressure to figure out my future.
What exactly was I going to do with a history major? The question was on my mind as I set off on a college study tour to Greece. During the tour I fell in love with Greece’s culture, people, myths, and art, but especially with its ancient history. Indeed, I was so captivated that one day, while sitting by the Parthenon, I concocted an answer to Gauguin’s third question about where I was going. I would go to graduate school, study ancient Greek history, and become a professor.
In that moment, it seems like all the dangling wires of my future came together to throw a spark that would last forever. The novelist John Gardener suggested that the true search in life is for one’s necessary fire. He was referring to a genuine, inborn desire in one’s heart, a passionate pull from within, towards something that feels required, as if it is part of your purpose for being here. It is this fire that holds the possibility to bring you alive, but it is also something with which you have a deep compatibility, and true affinity.
We could even say that your necessary fire is your own particular genius.
There is no doubt a fire was ignited in me in Greece, but whether it was the necessary one is another matter. To be honest, while my plan for the future did bring me alive, I did not have a real compatibility with teaching. It was just not me. Nevertheless, I came home from Greece, applied to graduate school in Greek History, and bonded with my dream for an entire year.
Then one day, shortly before my graduation, I opened the mailbox and found the letter that rejected me from graduate school, the one I’d applied to, the only one with the emphasis in ancient Greek history. Call me naïve, or overly-confident, but somehow I had not imagined this outcome. My grades were good enough, my recommendations stellar, and I had all sorts of extracurricular bells and whistles. I’m sure my GRE score didn’t dazzle anyone, but it wasn’t that bad.
The rejection threw me, in more ways than one. It didn’t just implode my well-laid plans for the future. It demoralized me in some deep and tender place inside where I was secretly trying to answer Gauguin’s second question, “What are we?” Or more to the point, what was I?
I was, I decided, a failure. I was not good enough for graduate school. I was not good enough, I was not enough. I told myself a thousand times to get over the rejection, to regroup, but the pain surrounding it only grew, as did the unsettling question, “Now what?”
I am not proud of any of this, mind you, but I gradually lost the feeling of wanting to take on the world. I began to retreat from it. So what do you suppose my parents gave me as a college graduation present? A trip to Greece.
It had been planned before the rejection letter arrived, and it was to be my mom’s 50th birthday present too, so it wasn’t like I could call it off. Going back to Greece wasn’t easy, but while in Delphi, I came upon the wisest piece of advice ever carved onto a temple fraise: know thyself. So began my attempt to enter into a serious conversation with myself, about my future.
I tried to listen to the quiet, sure voice inside. This voice I’m talking about is simply the part of you that knows, and it does not lie. It is your inner compass, pointing true north. The needling thing is, you can’t borrow someone else’s compass, like your parents or your friends, and expect to find your true north. You have to acquire the habit of conversing with your own depth of listening, of reading what’s inside of you. Nor does the compass pay the least attention to the common idea that life is primarily about acquisition and achievement.
My conversation had barely gotten underway the fall after my graduation, when I got a job with a city magazine, answering the phones and notifying the costumers of overdue bills. I moved through the weeks and months like the proverbial hamster, on its little wheel.
One day, my boss began asking me to submit essays to the magazine. The last thing I’d written about was the Peloponnesian War, so I put her off. I wanted to explain that writing was what my mother did. But the truth is that I had dreamed of becoming a writer when I was a little girl. I began to write the essays, and funny thing, I really loved it.
As I deepened the conversation I was having with myself, I came to realize that what brought me alive was writing, and moreover, I actually had a deep compatibility and affinity for it, and so, surprise, I found my necessary fire.
Today at 34, when I think about all the possible conversations that could go on inside of you at this moment, I hope yours will include a serious discussion about your necessary fire. I hope it will allow you to listen deeply to yourself, perhaps, even give you the courage to invite surprise.
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