Commencement Address 2012 by Joshua Bodwell, 06/09/12

Joshua Bodwell is the Executive Director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance.

37 Remarks for June 09, 2012

Thank you, David.

Hello. It is truly such a privilege to be here with all of you.

Since you’re all wondering, I’ll just come out and tell you: this is my grandfather’s kilt. Other than church, I remember my grandfather always donned this kilt for two special occasions: weddings and funerals. Because of that, this kilt makes me think of crying—sometimes it was tears of joy and sometimes it was tears of sadness. So what a perfect outfit, I thought, for a day like this, loaded as it is with complex emotions and no shortage of tears.

I want to begin my remarks by welcoming you all to this, my surprise birthday party. You probably don’t know, but on this day in 1975, I was born in Portland. *A gift table will be set up in back, so please leave presents—or simply cash and checks—right back there.

In many ways, no one is more surprised than me to find myself up here speaking to you wonderful people. This feeling is in part because I am not only so impressed by you students, but also somehow jealous of you and intimidated by you. It is more surprising that I am here today, however, because I am not a traditional guest speaker for traditional students. I do not have a college degree and I do not have a list of anecdotes about how to be successful in business.

I guess it’s a very good thing then that Merriconeag and its students are anything but traditional.

I am, quite simply, a man who used to be a boy that loved to read and write, and has found a way to make those things the bedrock of my life. I want to challenge each of you graduating students here today to construct a similar life, to love what you do, to go to the work you love and feel your heart rising to it.

While I seriously doubt there is anything I can say to any you that you can’t learn yourself by simply mastering the art of being still and observant, in honor of my thirty-seventh birthday, I would like to offer you thirty-seven bits of pithy advice, one impassioned plea for each year of my life.

#1 After graduating from high school, I spent a couple of years working a series of seemingly dead-end restaurant and factory jobs. I met people I would never have otherwise met. I saw things I would never have otherwise seen. I thought I was languishing. Eventually, I realized I was smack in the middle of real life. Eventually, I realized I was learning.

#2 You will find there are two kinds of people in this world: those who choose to stop learning, and those who choose to never stop learning. Which side are you going to be on? And don’t forget: the brain is a muscle, stop using it and it atrophies. Whether you get a bachelors, a masters, a PhD or none of the above, never stop learning. Learning is happiness.

#3 I am a writer and I am a horrible speller. This fact tends to surprise people. And I’m not quite sure why. Take solace in the reality that conventional wisdom is often wrong.

#4 When I was 19 years old, I loaded up a 1973 VW Bug and drove around the country with my best friend. We closed our eyes and listened to Niagara Falls roar. We stood at the base of the Twin Towers and felt appropriately small. We slept on the couches of near-strangers and we raided apple orchards in West Virginia. One moment we were crying at the battlefields of Gettysburg, the next moment we were laughing as we visited the Land of Little Horses. And then as we stood by the shore in Key West, the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico, my VW Bug’s engine engulfed itself in flames and burned everything we owned.

Yes, we went out there looking for America and, it’s true, we found ourselves. But the larger truth is that I am still trying to reconcile the lessons we learned on the road— they were so great and so formative.

So the reality of your age and this moment of your journey is that you have the opportunity to live life so hard and with such openness that something you experience next week might ripple through the rest of your life.

Please be sensitive to this fact—and then please try to forget I ever mentioned it.

#5 You are all beautiful.

#6 Do yourself a favor and learn how to cook. You will be invited to more parties and your relationships will flourish. And I don’t mean scrambling eggs or boiling pasta, I’m talking about a proper nicoise salad in summer, coq au vin in autumn, squash ravioli from scratch in winter, and the perfect wild mushroom and fiddlehead risotto in spring.

#7 When I was about your age, I once tried to explain to a friend that life was a series compromises…only, I could not for the life of me remember the word “compromises.” I kept saying, “life is a series of…those things, you know…like when either way it sucks. What’s that word?”

I did not yet understand that what might feel like a compromise is simply the aftershock of having had the courage to make a tough decision.

#8 Doing the right thing rarely means doing the easy thing.

#9 When considering #8, remember this single-line poem by Charles Bukowski: “The important thing is the obvious thing that nobody is saying.”

#10 The author Ray Bradbury died this week in Los Angeles. He was 91 years old. He authored 27 books and more than 600 short stories. More than eight million copies of his books have been sold in 36 different languages. But when I was 12 years old, Ray Bradbury was the first writer who made me feel—with every nerve in my body—that I wanted to be a writer. And I cried this week when I heard he’d died. Don’t ever forget the things that inspire and sustain you; nurture these things at all costs.

#11 Everyone remembers the first half of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham’s famous quote "Make no little plans.” But I want you to remember the second half of that quote: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood.”

#12 Do not Google your way through life. I don’t mean this as a knock against screen-time or your online life, I mean this: Google is just an algorithm that attempts find and show you things that it thinks you want to see based solely on other things you have already seen. In other words, it lacks the magic to stir one’s blood.

#13 Do not eat yellow snow.

#14 There will be no harder lesson for you to learn than learning to let go. Remember the words of the writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

#15 Speaking of Joseph Campbell: Did you know that George Lucas met with Campbell when was writing the Stars Wars saga, and in particular sought Campbell’s advice on the character of Yoda? Awesome, right? Well, never forget a bit of great advice from that little green philosopher, either: "Do or Do not. There is no try."

#16 You will all fail. This is not my opinion; it is a fact. So bear in mind the words of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Fail better!

#17 As you think about failing and failing better, remember your T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

#18 I keep a quote by the writer Raymond Carver above my desk: “If the writing can’t be made as good as we have within us to make it, why do it?” In fact, I love that quote so much that I set it, one letter at a time in metal type and letterpress printed it into handmade French paper, and then hung that above my desk. I challenge you to take out the word “writing” and replace it with whatever word means the most to you: “If the BLANK can’t be made as good as we have within us to make it, why do it?”

#19 If you hadn’t noticed, I’m on a role here with great quotes from authors, so I encourage you to remember what Shakespeare once said… [PAUSE]

#20 If you are open and loving and generous, you will suffer great loss in your life. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to prepare you for this. But please know this one thing: the alternative to living an open and loving and generous life is not an option.

#21 In my late 20s I found myself newly divorced, recently unemployed, and one bitter January morning, twisting up pages of the newspaper to light the woodstove in my farmhouse. One of those newspaper pages contained a Help Wanted ad for the newspaper itself. “Now Hiring Reporter” read the ad. “Why not,” I thought.

Two days and one brief interview later, I was a staff writer at the York County Coast Star, charged with covering the news of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Now, I’d written plenty of freelance articles for newspapers and magazines over the years, but I’d never been in the hot seat of a deadline-driven staff writer.

At the end of my first stress-addled week, I asked the paper’s assistant editor to have lunch, and over our sandwiches I confessed to him: “Look, I think you guys believe that I know what I'm doing here!”

“No,” he smiled, “we don’t. But we believe you’re smart enough to figure it out pretty quickly.”

Maybe it’s the middle child in me speaking, but I wanted nothing more than to live up to my editor’s belief in my abilities.

#22 Believe in yourself but don’t forget to be grateful to those people who believe in you. Work hard. Learn to love the good in the DOING of what you do. In my case, within less than two years at the York County Coast Star, I’d won first place in the two most competitive categories of the Maine Newspaper Association’s annual awards: investigative reporting and analysis reporting.

#23 The great problem of any modicum of success, the English writer Neil Gaiman said recently, is the "unshakeable conviction" that you are getting away with something and that "any moment now they will discover you." This is not a horrible feeling to hold onto and derive motivation from.

#24 Working at a weekly newspaper taught me that there are not 2 sides to every story—in fact, there are often no less that 15 sides to every story. There is no black or white, only gray. So do not leap to judgments about others. All of our stories are long and complex, and still being written.

#25 Go to your dictionary (you all have a dictionary, right?) well, go to those dictionaries and look up and understand the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy.” Once you do, always air on the side of compassion—not only when you lack details or the whole story, but especially when you lack details or the whole story.

#26 When in doubt, close your mouth and listen. Really listen. Listen hard.

#28 Now, many of you wondering how I got right from 26 to 28. But that’s because you weren’t listening!

#29 If you only remember one thing I say today, remember this: no matter what happens, be fiercely loyal to your friends. If you remember this advice and act on it, I promise you will be amazed at what you achieve in life simply because you have a support system of people who will give you advice with not only your best interest in mind but a willingness to be utterly honest about both your strengths and weaknesses.

#30 Speaking of friends, my friend Abbott told me to tell you these three things: Don’t gossip. Don’t whine. Don’t complain about inconsequential things. You will find that people may agree with you in the moment, they may say “oh my god, you are sooo right,” but they will lose respect for you over time. You may never know it, but they will. People who don’t make excuses, who don’t whine or complain, those are are the people who get things done in life.

#31 Never forget to celebrate.

#32 Nature’s Law is written that birds learn how to fly and then birds fly away from the nest. This does not mean that you have to leave Maine and never come home.

#33 Be an active participant in your community. Yes, we all prefer that community be here in Maine, but even if it isn’t, do not be a passive watcher. If you are lucky enough to find that you possess a certain talent for a particular thing, it is your obligation to volunteer that talent in your community.

#34 The author John Updike left behind scads of wonderful writerly advice, but I challenge each of you to apply this particular bit of Updike-ian advice to your lives: “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me—to give the mundane its beautiful due.”

When you get out into this big wide world and discover that sometimes life is made up of just days upon days upon days, and you can still find beauty in the banal and mundane, then and only then are you really living.

#35 We’re near the end here people: so please don’t forget what I said in #22: Work hard. Learn to love the good in the DOING of what you do. Feel your heart rising to your work.

Yes: love your work, but don’t you ever mistake a career for a life—those are very different things.

#36 Don’t believe everything you read, but believe everything you say. There will be no contract in your life more important than the one you write with yourself that includes clauses on your personal beliefs about “Ethics” and “Morals.” Do not let anyone else write that contract for you.

#37 If someone else doesn’t approve of this contract you have written with yourself, that’s fine. But your business model is your business model—no negotiations. If it doesn't work for someone else, fine. No hard feelings, seriously. Move on. There is work to do—and your heart are rising to it.

Thank you.


Grandparents & Friends Day Address by David Sloan,


       Good morning, you lucky grandparents.  I must confess from the outset that I stand before all of you with a twinge of envy that you are all, indeed, grandparents and I, alas, am still a grandparent-in-waiting.  I have several promising candidates to elevate me into your exalted ranks—that is, four grown children, ranging in age from 22 to 31—but only one is currently married, and since that blessed event took place just two weeks ago, I suppose it’s a bit impatient of me to expect too much too soon.  My three sons and my daughter all went through 13 or 14 years of Waldorf education in New York state, so they are products of the Waldorf nursery/kindergarten, elementary school and the high school, what in Waldorf circles the students refer to as “lifers.” I suppose that makes me a “half-lifer,” as I have been a teacher in a Waldorf high school for over thirty years.  Since the Merriconeag Waldorf School is now in its fourth year of existence, during which time we have grown from 16 to 40 students, I thought I might take a few minutes to describe how the high school builds upon the foundations provided for younger students in the earlier years.  Read more.