Deborah Goodrich Royce '80 shares the value of time with graduates
Deborah Goodrich Royce's commencement address:
Good morning. Good morning students in the class of 2008, good morning faculty, good morning families and good morning friends. Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you here today and welcome to the 149th commencement of Lake Erie College. And thank you to my extraordinary family for accompanying me here today: my mother, Kathy Goodrich, my daughters, Alexandra and Tess Porter and my husband, Chuck Royce. You add the meaning to my life.
This is a very special day for all of you as it is for me. As you may have heard, today is my 50th birthday. I am more than a third of the age of this College. I seem to be aging at a faster rate than the school! Half a century here, on this planet and in this body. I am here to tell you that the time goes quickly.
Time. It is a very small word for a very large concept. In fact, it is one of the largest and most elusive of concepts. Most of us don’t understand it. Most of us wish for it, but inevitably, waste it and take it for granted. Most of us don’t think about it until we are suddenly confronted with its limits. You get the diagnosis and you pray for more time. Your sweetheart says it’s over and you wish to turn back the clock, to have just a little more time to do things differently. The parents sitting here right now can’t believe that the time has gone. We feel that it was just yesterday that you were born, that you were small, that your childhood was all in front of us. We also feel that youth is wasted on the young, and, were we given another chance at college, we would make much better use of that time! The students in the audience see from different eyes. Childhood may be gone, it may even have gone quickly, but time seems to stretch in a vast infinity ahead of you. This is, after all, a commencement, a beginning. There is time ahead. How on Earth will you fill it all?
Take a moment to think about those times in your life that you thought would never end. SAT preparation comes to mind. A long, icy walk home when you thought you’d never reach your door. For the mothers in the house, labor and childbirth. For everyone, a stomach flu, a migraine, a tedious job. Perhaps sitting in this auditorium right now. These moments seem to last forever. You stare at the clock and the hands barely move.
Now, think about those moments in your life that passed in a flash. Dancing or laughing with someone you love. Kissing. The phone call or email that says you got the job, won the award, secured the part in the play. The perfect vacation and whatever that entails … sun and surf, togetherness or solitude, culture or nature. Perfect moments fly by. You look at the calendar and they are in the past.
So, time expands and contracts. It is not, after all, a fixed and measurable quantity. It is fluid. How can this be? I certainly don’t presume to know the answer to that. But, more to the point, what can you do about it?
Well, that is what I’d like to talk about today. What can YOU do about it?
You can pay attention. Do whatever it is you need to do to heighten the experience of experiencing your life. Write it down. Speak it. Think it. Draw it. Tell it to another. Slow down and really see it. Attach words to images to reinforce the awareness of what you are seeing.
I learned so many things here at Lake Erie College. My professors were wonderful and life-changing and their classes were interesting and engaging. Some of those professors may be here today … George Farrell, Egidio Lunardi, Kim McQuaid, Jake Rufli. The subjects that I studied with them were the foundation of what I have continued to learn and experience in the intervening years. But the lesson I am sharing with you right now did not take place in the classroom but in the dormitory, more specifically, in the bathroom. For me, it was not a lesson that took much time to learn, but it has taken a lifetime to remember to practice.
I lived in College Hall. I think that we were placed fairly randomly into the various dorms, but, for me, College Hall was a dream-come-true. I would not have known to place myself into College Hall, as I was one of those young people whose self-awareness was particularly low. But the hand of fate, or college housing, knew where to put me. College Hall was a very cool dorm. First of all, the building was terribly old. So old, in fact, that we had fire drills in the middle of the night when we had to exit by the side fire escapes on the exterior of the building. We were reminded, over and over, that the central staircases would be utterly consumed by flames in three minutes flat. How anyone came up with the exact measurement of three minutes, no one told us.
Our rooms had transom windows, both over the doors to the halls and over the doors to the closets. We were told that, back in the days of Lake Erie Female Seminary, the girls who lived two to a room would split up for prayers, one in the closet and one in the main part of the room. College Hall was also said to be haunted by the girl who had used her diamond engagement ring to carve something into the window of the tower. And this tower was the home of bats, which escaped from time to time to flap wildly and blindly down the corridors of College Hall. This was all fantastically exotic to me. I had grown up in a post war suburban housing development where every house was new and looked like every other house. No transoms. No prayer closets. No flaming staircases. No bats. And no ghosts.
What’s more, College Hall, to me, was populated by the most interesting set of characters I had ever met. They were all girls then. There were girls who brought their horses, of course, but there were also girls who brought their cats. Their ferrets, even. There were girls from New York who loved to hear the Midwestern girls say: “The purple bird unfurled its wings and flew away.” They thought it was a scream, all those heavily pronounced “R’s”! There were girls who not only read poetry but wrote it. Girls who not only acted in plays but wrote them. Girls who traveled to Ireland to work with horses, to Japan to study Kabuki Theatre and to Italy to study art, Italian and, especially, romance. This was a very new world to me. And I loved it. All of it. College Hall, Lake Erie College, was the door to the world beyond. This was what I had been looking for. This was not Warren, Michigan. These people were doing things and going places. They were making choices that I didn’t yet know were mine to make.
But back to the lesson learned in the bathroom. One day, some of these fascinating dorm mates were sitting around talking about what is seen versus what is actually perceived. We were in someone’s room and one of the girls asked another girl to describe the College Hall bathroom from memory. Now, this was a room that we all visited at least twice a day. We knew this room. We were familiar with it. We could have navigated this room in a blackout.
However, this task of correctly describing a place, even a place that is well known, was more difficult for me that I had imagined. How high were the ceilings? Exactly what was the pattern on the wallpaper? What was the shape of the faucets? What did those tiles look like? One of the girls was light years ahead of me in her understanding of these things and she suggested that I go into the bathroom, look at every single thing and, simultaneously, put words to each image. And, lo and behold, she was right.
I had not yet read Proust so all of this was a fabulous discovery!
For me, I need to attach words to pictures to seal those visual elements in my mind. I do it to this day. This auditorium is not a room I am familiar with, as it did not exist during my time at Lake Erie College. I know that I will be able to remember it better if I take time to look around and say the names of what I am seeing.
All this really is, is a technique. A technique that is useful in making sure that we are paying attention to the life we are living. For me, the words are helpful. For you, it may be something else. But I guarantee you, if you don’t make the time to really see and experience this present moment, this very moment in time, not five minutes ago when you were taking off your sweater, not five minutes from now when you will get up from your seat to leave the room, it will be gone and gone without notice. Gone and forgotten.
Maybe that is why the difficult times seem to stretch on so excruciatingly. Because discomfort, whether physical, emotional or psychic, is the great focuser of our attention. It pulls us and it draws us, like it or not, to itself. We notice it. So, the key is, to reproduce that level of attention without the pain.
You are adults, but you are not finished. You are not done, as a cake is done, when it is finished cooking and the only thing left to do is burn. You will be given the opportunity to “cook” some more, and then some more and ever more and more. Take these opportunities. Pay attention to where and when they arise. For, they will arise constantly.
As the exquisite writer, Annie Dillard, says: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Pay attention to how you spend your days. Be a part of a community. Help others. Believe in something greater than yourself. Continue to learn. Laugh, live and love. And, always notice the doing of it all.
Before you leave here today, walk around the campus of Lake Erie College and really look at it. Look at College Hall, at the Morley Music Building, at Kilkawley Hall. There is a building missing from the time when I was here: the Lincoln Commons. It was a series of spherical pods made out of glass and suspended on cement posts that seemed to hover in the trees. It was where we ate our meals. The Lincoln Commons was designed by Victor Christ-Janer, of the Harvard Five, a group of world-renowned architects. In fact, Lake Erie College is blessed to have two other of Mr. Christ-Janer’s buildings: the Library and the Fine Arts Building. Take a good look at those buildings when you walk around the campus. For me, I am grateful that I paid attention to the Lincoln Commons when I and it were still here.
With your degree, you receive no guarantees. The world is changing, but that is not new. The world is constant in one thing: change. Live it. Embrace it or rail against it. Find your way within it. Congratulations on the work you’ve done and Godspeed on the journey ahead. Just pay attention, for this, right here and right now, is your life.