One night I brought my daughter and her friend, Claire, to a production of Waiting for Godot in which my eldest son was appearing. And when the lights came up after that shattering last scene, when Vladmir and Estragon are still exactly where they started, the look on eleven-year-old Claire’s face was comical.
“Godot never came,” she said, with wonder and a hint of existential despair which I am sure would have thrilled Samuel Beckett, if indeed he was ever thrilled about anything.
Apparently Claire was one of the last people in the world to understand the trick of Godot—that is, that two hapless fools, or seekers, or lost souls, or whatever you consider them, wait throughout the entire play for someone, something, that never arrives. Perhaps it is their salvation. Perhaps, as the name suggests, it’s the deity. Perhaps it’s just a source of direction and guidance and self-knowledge. Whatever it is, it is everything, and when the curtain comes down, it is still missing in action.
Well, I am here today with a piece of good news in honor of this graduation day. Godot has arrived. The linchpin, the bedrock, the source of all the questions that have plagued your soul, and all the answers too. The way is clear. The way is here. You saw Godot when you blew your hair dry this morning, when you brushed your teeth and put on mascara.
I have seen your salvation; and it is you, staring back at yourself, your eyes windows to your heart and mind.
Many of you have looked for Godot, or some facsimile, elsewhere in this particular place. You have looked for it in the grade on the last page of that art history paper, in the grad school acceptance letters, in the laughter of your friends, in the smile of some nice man or woman. What passed for your life was often a search for outside validation. Law school or a museum internship would save you, or love or romance or sex, or a poem published in a magazine, a painting hung at a show.
But one edition of a magazine has a way of giving way to another, and course grades come and go, and occasionally, very occasionally, a lover who should know better will nonetheless dump you. The prizes arrive, but soon they are dusty, and then what do you have?
You better have you. The real you, the authentic examined self, not some patchwork collection of affectations and expectations, more and mannerisms, some treadmill set to the prevailing speed of universal acceptability, the tyranny of homogeny, whether the homogeny of the straight world of the suits or the spiky world of the avant-garde.
The tyrant must be overthrown, the lockstep unlocked. Today is the day that those lucky enough to be your teachers, your classmates, your friends and your family must say: custody of your life belongs in full to you and you alone. Do not cede it to anyone else, no matter how loving or well intentioned.
People will tell you what you ought to study and how you ought to feel. They will tell you what to read and how to live. They will urge you to take jobs they themselves loathe, and to follow safe paths they themselves find tedious. Don’t listen.
This is tough stuff. It’s so much easier to follow the template, to walk the straight and narrow set out by the culture, the family, the friends, the focus groups. You will have to bend all your will not to march to the music that all of those great theys there pipe on their flutes. They want you to go to professional school, to pierce your navel, to wear khakis, to tint your hair, to bare your soul. These are the fashionable ways. The music is tinny, if you listen close enough. Look inside, look inside.
This will always be your struggle. I know this from experience. When I quit the New York Times to be a full-time mother, the voices of the world said I was nuts. When I quit it again to be a full time novelist, they said I was nuts again. But I am not nuts. I am successful on my own terms. Because if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your soul, it is not success at all.
Look at your fingers. Each one is crowned by an abstract design that is completely different than that of anyone in this crowd, in this country, in this world. They are a metaphor for everything. Each of you are as different as your fingertips. Why should you march to any lockstep? Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that bedevils us. It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue, because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen to what its tympani is saying.
James Joyce lived most of his writing life in grinding poverty, cadging off friends. One critic called Catcher in the Rye “a small book” and referred to Holden Caulfield as a delinquent. Why did Wallace Stevens work all day as an insurance company executive and then, on weekends, sit down and write poems like the one that ends “Only here and there, an old sailor, drunk and asleep in his boots, catches tigers in red weather,” knowing, surely knowing, that at the country club in Connecticut his compatriots would gather after golf to say “What the hell?”
He must have looked in the mirror, and looking back, seen a poet, surely. Seen himself, as Salinger did, as Joyce did. As you must, as we all must, if we are to be more than dead men walking.
You already know this. I just need to remind you, even those of you who are older here, who know full well that the demands for conformity do not ever stop. Think back. Think back to first grade, when you could still hear the sound of your own voice in your head, when you were too young, too unformed, too fantastic to understand that you were supposed to take on the protective coloration of the expectations of those around you. Think of what the writer Catherine Drinker Bowen once wrote, more than half a century ago: “Many a man who has known himself at ten forgets himself utterly between ten and thirty.”
Many a woman, too.
You are not alone in this. We parents have forgotten our way sometimes, too. When you were first born, each of you, our great glory was in thinking you absolutely distinct from every baby who had ever been born before. You were a miracle of singularity, and we knew it in every fiber of our being. You shouted “Dog.” You lurched across the playground. You put a scrawl of red paint next to a squiggle of green and we put it on the fridge and said, Ohmidgod, ohmidgod, you are a painter a poet a prodigy a genius.
But we are only human, and being a parent is a very difficult job, more difficult than any other, because it is 24/7, because it is unpaid and unrewarded much of the time, because it requires the shaping of other people, which is an act of extraordinary hubris. And over the years we learned to want for you things that you did not necessarily want for yourself. We learned to want the lead in the play, the acceptance to our own college, the straight and narrow path that sometimes leads absolutely nowhere. We learned to suspect, even fear your differences, not to celebrate them. Sometimes we were convinced conformity would make life better, or at least easier for you. Sometimes we had a hard time figuring out where you ended and we began.
Guide us back to where we started. Help us not to make mistakes out of fear or out of love. Teach us gently as we once taught you about who you really are and who you intend to become. Learn not to listen to us when we are wrong. Whether you are 24 or 54, begin today to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience.
Vladmir and Estragon—they just wait and wait for some formless enormous something. And sadly enough, that’s what some of us wind up doing in our own lives: waiting for the promotion, or the mate, or the bonus, or the honor, or the children, that will somehow make us real to our own selves. “You did see me, didn’t you?” Vladmir asks Godot’s messenger, as though he does not exist unless he registers in other eyes, as though his soul is made of smoke instead of steel.
That is his despair. That is his torment. Learn from him. You are only real if you can see yourself, see yourself clear and true in the mirror of your soul and smile upon the reflection. Samuel Butler once said “Life is like playing a violin solo in public, and learning the instrument as one goes on.” That sounds terrifying, doesn’t it, and difficult too. But that way lies music. Look in the mirror. Who is that man? Who is that woman? She is the work of your life; he is its greatest glory, too. Do not dare to demean them by dressing them up in someone else’s spiritual clothing. Pick up your violin. Lift your bow. And play. Play your heart out.
Photo by Luca Iaconelli on Unsplash.