Agnes Scott Commencement 2000
Thank you President Bullock, Dean, Board of Trustees, Honorable Faculty, Graduating Seniors, Parents, Friends and People Who Never Would’ve Believed It If They Hadn’t Seen It For Themselves.
I am very pleased to have been invited to give this commencement address. I was not a very high profile student in my years here. Not that I did badly. I won’t put up a building here someday, like David Letterman did at his college, and dedicate it to the C student. But I was quiet. I spent a lot of time in the observatory. And the pool. I spent two hours a day accompanying the dance group. That, to my way of thinking, was a better way to earn my scholarship money than checking people in and out of date parlors. I haven’t asked, but do we still have date parlors here?
And I spent a lot of time off campus, I went to Martin Luther King’s funeral, though we were officially confined to campus that day. And I did volunteer work at the burn unit at Grady General. I spent a semester at Emory reading Russian novels. In fact, from what I’ve read of Agnes Scott today, I believe I’d be much happier here now. I wouldn’t feel so restricted, or be so convinced I didn’t belong. I wouldn’t have to eat so many Krispy Kreme donuts or take so many unauthorized trips to Stone Mountain. Now obviously, we are not here to talk about me,
But something important did happen to me here. And something has, I suspect, happened to you. Because you’ve been talking about Transformation, it’s on all the banners hanging around campus, you’ve had famous folks in to talk about it, and, I would assume, it’s been the subject of long conversations between roommates, like when are you going to turn into somebody I can stand. And I’m sure it’s been the subject of private meditations on the way to the Krispy Kreme, or Trackside, like when am I going to turn into somebody I can stand.
Well, this is it! This is the day! After all this talk of transformation, this thinking about transformation, this is the day when you are going to be transformed by the majesty, the power, and yes, the magic of this ceremony, into the woman of your dreams, the person you always wanted to be.
And everybody who believes that, has to re-enroll and start over.
No, I’m afraid, the hat on your head is not a magic hat. The words that President Bullock will say today are not magic words. The diploma she will hand you is not an ancient map leading to a treasure that will set you up for life. There is magic in this world all right, but this ceremony is not it.
This ceremony is a SONG, a dance, a celebration of the idea of transformation. This ceremony is a gathering of the Alchemists Guild, of all those who believe that lead, that anything for that matter, can be turned into gold – that sow’s ears can be turned into silk purses, that plastic bottles can be turned into polar fleece, that ideas can be turned into money, that knowledge can become power, that inspiration can become art, that energy, despite what the scientists say, can become matter, and that girls of promise can become women of distinction.
We can celebrate transformation today, but we can’t see it. Real transformation is a private event. It isn’t the marriage ceremony itself that ties the knot between two people. And neither is it the divorce decree that unties that knot. It isn’t the goofy blue fairy who turns Pinocchio into a real boy, or the Dopey Fairy Godmother who turns Cinderella into a Princess. The ceremonies are conducted, and the fairies appear simply to acknowledge publicly that something, or someone has changed – that something previously unseen, can now be seen, that something invisible has now become visible. That the private has become public. That faith has become fact, that wish has become word, that dream has become destiny.
But if it wasn’t the Fairy Godmother, when was Cinderella transformed into a princess? Well that one’s easy. When she realized that she belonged at the ball.
Or, since you probably hate the princess thing as much as I do, When did Joan of Arc really become a saint? Because that is the moment to look at today. What is a real moment of transformation, and how do you know you’ve had one, and what do you do about it?
When did Joan morph, cross the line, become a saint? When the Pope said so? No, no. She was already a saint by then, that’s what made him think of calling her one. Was it when they lit the fire? Certainly not. They lit the fire because that’s what we do to saints, we torture them.
No. I’m sure the real moment of transformation was some very quiet moment, some moment only Joan was aware of, some moment when Joan herself, realized that things were different now, that she had changed. Maybe it had been going on for a while, so quietly that even Joan didn’t notice. But then something happened, and Joan saw it, saw her greatness, her sainthood out of the corner of her eye, and knew it was not just an option, not just an idea, but an identity. In that moment of transformation Joan saw the truth at the center of her known world, and nothing was ever the same. But it wasn’t the truth itself that transformed Joan, truth is everywhere. It was seeing it. And admitting to herself what she had seen.
I want to suggest that transformation occurs when you see who you are, when you no longer need to have your identity confirmed by anyone else, when you decide to stop waiting for someone else to tell you it’s true, and tell you what you should do about it.
At that moment, you step over the line between what you were and what you will be.. This is a good thing, to become visible. To show yourself. It is what life is for.
The theater is all about transformation. If you are lucky, in the theater, you get to watch, as before your very eyes, Nora the housewife, turns into Nora the woman walking out the door. As Othello the loving husband, turns into Othello, the guy who kills his wife. As Oedipus turns from the all conquering, riddle-solving hero, into the patricidal, incestuous lunatic wandering around in the desert gouging his eyes out.
Did these characters know what was going to happen to them? No. Did they plan it, no. Put themselves in a some self-improvement program so they could be changed? Not really.
No more than the caterpillar who out of simple instinct, or innocent pleasure, spins a web around herself and goes to sleep. She has no idea she will wake up a Monarch, or even just a moth. No idea. But when she finds herself transformed, she doesn’t just sit there, thinking how much she misses being long and furry. She does not lament what she has lost. She figures out what to do with what she has now…these wings.
We can no more predict our transformations than the butterfly. Change is the rule in life. Things happen, and not according to any plan that we can get a look at in advance. We are shaped and changed by what happens to us, but when we become aware of these transformations, that is our moment. When you turn that corner, become someone new, cross that line, whatever it is, will you have the courage to see it, to embrace it, to figure out what to do about it? I think the odds are very good. It is one of the tasks of your education to prepare you for the changes that may occur, and equip you to respond to them. And if you have spent four years here, you have an education you can count on.
One of the things that happened to me here at Agnes Scott was I learned to measure the distance between what I was, and what I wanted to be. This is a useful thing. And I suspect you’ve already learned it, so close your eyes. Please. I want to show you something.
It’s ten years ago. You’re looking at a playground. You see yourself standing there, the girl you were ten years ago. You were eleven, or twelve. You’re standing on the playground on the last day of 6th grade. See your hair, see what you had on. See your friends around you, you remember their names. Say two of their names. And now look across the playground. Who is that woman standing there in the cap and gown. Why it’s you, it’s the you you are today, graduating from one of the smartest schools in America. You look pretty good, huh.
On the outside you’ve changed so much. But have you changed really? Every cell in your body has changed. But this doesn’t make you different. This just makes you a woman instead of a girl. This is just a physical change, this is something you couldn’t stop if you wanted to.
Real transformation is more than physical. Real transformation is something you have to first observe, and then act on. Real transformation is something you can stop, you can pretend nothing has happened, you can pretend you have no talent because maybe you’re scared you’ll fail. You can pretend you don’t want things because you’re afraid you can’t have them. But we all know these people who refused to see who they have become, and they are miserable. And so is everybody around them. The brave thing, is to keep an eye on yourself, so when something changes, you can can figure out what to do about it.
Have you experienced a moment of real transformation? Was there a day, when suddenly, you knew, that things were different now? Was there a day when you knew something about yourself that nobody else knew, something that was true without question? Was there a moment when you understood something so clearly that it was as if you stopped breathing, stopped thinking, and saw it? I hope so. If not, well, at least now you’ll know what it is when it happens.
You could call this an epiphany, if you wanted to write a book about it. But don’t be fooled into thinking they make life perfect. Just because you finally understand that you’re a writer in your bones, doesn’t mean they won’t hate about half of what you do in the world. But it will mean that when you smell the smoke, you will at least know what you’re being set on fire for.
My personal moment of transformation occurred in a forest. And these moments always sound stupid to somebody else. You read Proust and you think, oh come on, they’re just little cookies. But I’m going to risk sounding stupid in order to make it clear what these moments feel like.
My big one happened in this place called Brown County State Park, in, guess what, Brown County, Indiana. Which is pretty nice, but not the Grand Canyon, you know. And I was feeling grumpy, which I do a lot. But this grumpiness was pretty specific. I was walking through the spectacular fall foliage, with a seriously sexy guy thinking, how come nobody knows how good a writer I probably am. How come nobody calls me up and says, “Marsha, we see who you are, so come over here and write for the newspaper, or how about writing a play, isn’t that what you secretly secretly want to do?” I thought,
Agnes Scott Commencement
They don’t care if I ever amount to anything. What if I live my whole life and nobody ever asks me for enough, for what I can really do? And of course, I’d had this same conversation with myself about a jillion times since sometime in the 9th grade, I think.
But on this day, something happened. I saw the tree. I saw one spectacular tree, red and orange and just wild with color. Totally incomprehensibly beautiful. Description has never been my thing, so just trust me here, it was amazing. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. And instead of continuing on, I stopped. I actually saw it. I saw that it had undergone this incredible transformation… and I saw that NOBODY MADE IT DO THAT. The Tree Boss did not come in and say, You. Turn red. No. The tree had become that flaming beauty because it was in its nature to do so.
And I understood. Very quietly. Very seriously. If I was a writer, and I knew I was, then I shouldn’t wait for somebody to tell me to write or ask me to write. I should just write. I would work at it, I should get good. I should risk finding out I wasn’t any good. I should just go ahead and become was I was.
Maybe you already know your calling, as Dean Kline referred to it yesterday. Maybe you go back to this playground where we were looking a minute ago, and look the other way, and see the woman you will be ten years from now. Maybe today, you can catch sight of yourself standing between the girl you were, and the woman you will become.
One thing I know. Nature is not wasteful. If you are here, and there is something you are equipped to do, then we need it, even if we don’t know it yet. Your task is to realize what it is you are here for. I hope you don’t have to burn at the stake for it, but stake and all, I don’t think Joan would have done it any differently. And neither would Indira Ghandi, or Harriet Tubman, or Marie Curie or Gloria Steinem or Toni Morrison or any of them.
Catching sight of what you are uniquely equipped to do, and then having the guts to do it, will be worth it.. To do any less, to back away from the promise of transformation, to say no to your own glorious nature, will make for a life that feels very long and very empty.
To see who you are and say yes, is to throw in your lot with those spirits who take shape in this world, who amass weight and who throw that weight around. To join up with the wild women and make some noise. To be heard, to be tough, to be whole. This is my challenge to you. Keep your eyes open. And when you get that first real glimpse of who you have become, who you need to be, kneel down like Joan of Arc and kiss the ground and say, Get Ready Guys. Wait til you see what I can do.
Thank you very much.