The end of May is full of the smells of honeysuckle and hints of smoke from the brave few that are unable to hold back from firing up their BBQs before the “official” summer hits. During these days the evening air is also often full of the sounds of children playing in the lengthening daylight, and if you listen closely you might hear the distant murmuring of a commencement speech from some nearby school as students’ graduate, transitioning from one thing to the next.
Or, maybe, if you are lucky enough, you might find yourself in the audience of one of these celebrations — perhaps your son or daughter, maybe your favorite niece or an only semi-tolerated nephew. Regardless, you’ll be sitting with throngs of others that each desire two things: 1) to find some inspiration in the uttered words and, perhaps more so, 2) for the whole thing to end as quickly as possible. It turns out that we are all the same in many respects: Busy, easily bored and tired of cliches and platitudes.
Like writing in general, there are some commencements speeches that rise to the level of “tear-jerking-motivational-go-out-and-get-em”calls to action that go beyond simple expressions of self indulgence. These speeches touch us in away that reminds us that life is precious and fragile. That time only has the meaning that we give it, and when it is gone, it is really gone.
The concepts of Time and Life’s Meaning are the bricks and mortar of any commencement speech. Oddly enough, these are the subjects of poetry, too. What did William Faulkner say?
“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
Maybe Faulkner was on to something and maybe more commencement speech writers should look to poets for insight and clarity into what touches a human’s sole. For example, if you have 13 minutes to listen to poet Billy Collins speech to the graduating class of 2008 at Colorado College, you’ll see what I mean. If you don’t have that kind of time, here are Billy Collins “Top Ten thoughts on the subject:”
10) Time is not money. Time is time.
9) Time is more valuable than money.
8) Magazines largely devoted to reporting the weight gains and losses of celebrities are a waste of time.
7) St Augustine said that he understood the concept of Time perfectly until he started thinking about it.
6) In the past time was measured not in months and hours, but in birdsongs, the brightness moonlight, and the migration patterns of animals.
5) In the words of James Brown: “Money won’t change you, but Time will take you out.
4) When your time is over, you will be remembered for what you did, not for what you never got around to doing. No eulogist at your funeral will say “Too bad she never signed up for that yoga class.” Or “A pity he never followed up on those Italian lessons.” So don’t waste even more time worrying about the things on your “To Do” list.
3) When your time is done, you will not be remembered for what clothes you wore or what kind of car you drove. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a letter to his daughter as she was beginning college. The letter is full of fatherly advice about such things as the importance of studying and the dangers of boys. Finally, at the end of the letter he adds “Don’t spend a lot of time on your hair.”
2) There really is no time like the present. But there is no time like the past or the future either, so what are you going to do?
1) The most striking definition of Time that I know comes from Martin Amis who called time “that mysterious, inexorable force that eventually will make everyone look and feel like hell.”
Listen to Collins entire speech here >>>
Or, if you want to indulge on other such excellent examples of “Benchmarking-kinds-of-commencement-speeches,” listen here >>>
But, back to the point of this short piece: These May Days that are full of smells and sounds that can sooth as well as twist our souls, remembering what matters and what does not. For poets, life is beautiful and then we die. For everyone else? The same. We are here now, smelling and seeing and tasting. But what does it all mean? Maybe it means that we should pause and take a deep breath before we open that bottle of wine we’ve been saving. And then after pouring a little more wine into the glass than we should, we might sit with a loved one, or alone, sipping slowly as we watch in silence as the sun as it melts into the mercurial sea.