The Geography of Verbs: Commencement Remarks by Patti Digh ’82
My dear Friends,
A few years ago, a young family appeared on the Oprah show. A mom, a dad and two young kids. The mom was dying of cancer. And she had decided in her last months to make videotaped messages for her young children teaching them what she so wanted them to know as they grew older. Simple things like how to steam an artichoke, and more complex things like how to know when you’re in love. It was heartbreaking to watch her think ahead to leave these messages behind. What strength that must have taken.
And they also took the kids on all kinds of adventures, to swim with dolphins, to Disneyland and beyond, hoping to impress on the minds of these young kids the memory of this mother who wouldn’t be with them long.
After she died, Oprah welcomed the family back to her show and asked the kids a question: “What is one of your favorite memories of your mom?” I’m sure Oprah imagined they would talk about swimming with dolphins or one of their big adventures with her, but the little girl said very quietly, “I remember one time when my mom asked me to get her a bowl of Cheerios, and we ate them together.”
It’s not the big things, it’s those little ones. This is a big day, and it is an important one to celebrate, but truthfully, the bowls of Cheerios in your life – those quiet moments with people you love – are far more meaningful and memorable and grounding in the long run.
I asked my 8-year-old daughter, Tess, what I should say here today, and this is what she suggested I tell you: “Be free, have fun, bye.”
And while I imagine that 5-word speech might be more memorable than a longer one, I do feel compelled to elaborate just a bit on what Tess suggested.
My talk is entitled “The Geography of Verbs” for two reasons: First, I believe our lives are atlases of experience. The different maps we walk and live into – our work map, our friend map, our partner or spouse map, our passion map, the maps of our deep sadnesses and greatest joys, the maps of those shadow selves we dare not show anyone else – all these are loose pages, seemingly unconnected sometimes, and yet they are bound together in ways we cannot fully appreciate until we reach the end of this life. There is a messiness until the volume gets bound. And the binding often comes only with the ending, that last map into a frontier we might fear or welcome, but never know. A paradox, that.
A few years ago, my stepfather was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he died just 37 days later. Those last pages of his atlas of experience were bound very quickly. It was a time frame that shocked me, and humbled me. I woke up on day 38, the morning after he died, asking myself one question: “What would I be doing today if I only had 37 days to live?” It is a question that changed my life. I recognized that I needed to change my maps, that the atlas I was living was an atlas created by other people, not me.
At that point, I had written two business books on global leadership and global diversity, and when each of those books appeared in my mailbox from the publisher, and I ripped into them to see my work made whole, I felt nothing. The first of them was a Fortune magazine “best business book” for the year it came out, so it was applauded by many people, but as I sat on my front porch with it in my hands – my first book! – I felt nothing. I knew after my stepfather’s death that I needed to create my own maps, find my own voice, follow my own heart.
“Map-making is almost as old as human beings,” writes John Noble Wilford in his book Mapmakers. “No one knows where or for what purpose someone got the first idea to draw a sketch to communicate a sense of place, some sense of here in relation to there.”
Where is your here right now? And where is your there? How can we map between those places, through the gorgeous place in which you sit today – this liminal, in-between space that is so potent, and so feared. I believe these liminal spaces are where the power is. On a map they might appear as a desert, but in a desert there is much life and much learning.
We orienteer through our lives like explorers, or not. We leap, or we don’t. We see the space at the edge of our seeing as either a boundary – or horizon. And explorers are only explorers if they don’t know. Safety is not part of the explorer’s world – it is not knowing that forms their ground truth. That’s what it means to explore and to map new places.
If our lives are maps waiting to be drawn, the longitude and latitude of those human maps are story. As Jerome Bruner has said, “We are story-making animals. We make meaning of our lives through story. We tell the stories of our travels from here to there, both literal and metaphoric. We journey into dark caves and bright sunlit mountain tops in our lives – and our lives are made up of the stories we tell about those journeys – and what we bring back from those places, and how we are changed by them, just as your journey here to Guilford has changed you.
And as writer Robert Olen Butler has said, “The definition of story is a yearning meeting an obstacle.” The story of our lives is the story of what we wish for and the obstacles we must overcome and learn from in order to get there. But we try to avoid those obstacles – and yet they are vital to our story moving forward. Little Red Riding Hood needs what character to be a compelling story? The wolf. But we try to minimize the wolf in our lives, keep it in a cubicle far, far away from us, ignore it, deny the wolf – when the wolf is the catalyst for movement forward in the story.
The verbs we live – that is, the actions we take – create the landscape of our lives. The verbs we live, the actions we take, the story we frame over those actions – all those things together create the structure of our land – those valleys and mountains of our atlas of experience. And like any hike up any mountain or through any landscape, the process is messy while you’re in it, and there is just no way you can see a clear path, not until you’re finished. So it is okay to be lost. That is what I’m telling you. It’s okay to be lost and not know – because that’s what learning is, that’s what life is.
The great and beautiful physicist Herman von Helmholtz talked about something he called “the royal road.” The royal road is the straight line back to where you started that you can only see once you reach the top of the mountain. In the journey up, you zig-zag back and forth, and it isn’t a straight line.
Three short stories with three verbs:
Squeeze in next to someone arm to arm
The first is a story about the Jungian analyst and writer Marion Woodman.
During a stay in India, Marion became very sick with dysentery, captive in her hotel room for weeks. Finally, desperate to escape the room, she gingerly made her way to the hotel foyer one afternoon to sit and write a letter to her husband. Sitting near the end of a long, empty couch, she began to write.
Soon, though there were many other seats available, a very large brown woman came and squeezed between Marion and the end of the couch, so close that their arms were touching, so close it made it difficult for Marion to write.
Marion scooted away, angry at the invasion of her space. The woman scooted closer, pushing up against her. “Every time I moved, she moved,” Marion said, “until we ended up at the other end of the couch.”
Once she stopped moving away, Marion realized what a nice, big, warm arm the woman had, and so they sat, a thin bird of a sickly white woman and a big brown woman, arm to arm. Not sharing a common language, they couldn’t speak, but sat in silence. Marion gave in to the broad warm arm, the presence of the other, and relaxed into her.
The next day, she went again to the hotel foyer to write. And, again, the woman came and sat touching her, next to her, silently. And the third day. And the fourth day, as Marion’s health improved.
This couch dance continued for a week. And one day, a man appeared as the two women finished their silent, warm-armed vigil.
“You’re all right now. My wife won’t come back tomorrow,” he said to Marion, nodding toward her couch compatriot. “Your wife?,” she thought to herself, startled at his intimacy. “Why is she here in the first place?”
She was unprepared for his quiet and simple answer.
“I saw you were dying and I sent her to sit with you. I knew the warmth of her body would bring you back to life,” he said.
It took a moment for the magnitude of his message and the enormity of what these two strangers had done for her to sink in.
“She did save my life,” Marion said quietly in recounting the story. “That this woman would take the time to sit with me…and, most importantly, that I could receive it…” That is relatedness.”
That is what it means to hold presence for others.
So the first verb is to squeeze in next to someone, arm to arm – to hold presence for others.
Follow your desire lines
In the park where we play, there are nicely laid-out concrete paths leading from the swings to the picnic tables, from the castle to the soccer field, from the water fountain to the bridge. And then there are the real paths, the dirt ones, the ones that shoot out from the concrete to connect where people really go. In the business of landscape architecture, these impromptu, unofficial, renegade paths have a poetic, wonderful name.
They’re called “desire lines.” Desire lines indicate a yearning to go our own way, to make a new path, to see the results of our own agency through space. Some have suggested that desire lines are an ultimate expression of human longing and natural human purpose. As Frank Zappa has said, “Without deviation, progress is not possible.”
Thanks to the generosity of my publisher, Globe Pequot Press, headquartered in none other than Guilford, Connecticut, every graduate here has received a copy of my latest book, “What I Wish for You: Simple Wisdom for a Happy Life.” I’d like to read a short excerpt from that book to explain what following your desire lines looks like, a piece by a woman named Carol Sanders, who writes, in part: “Follow the idea that calls you. As you start on your own life’s passage, follow the idea that makes you wake in the morning without an alarm, that calls you to scribble ideas on napkins and scrap paper and to lose all sense of time, that makes your heart beat faster at every corner with the endless possibilities.”
It’s great to have a map. But don’t forget to follow your desire lines, whether they are on the map or not.
Look over the edge
The son of one of my husband’s colleagues was killed recently while rock climbing. A renowned climber, Pete Absolon has gone with a friend for a challenging climb, but not a serious one. He had a six-year-old daughter at home, and wasn’t taking any changes. Right in the middle of a conversation as they climbed, something came hurtling down from above. There was no warning, his friend recalled. Just a sudden crack, and then he saw Pete hanging from the ropes, staring straight ahead. “His face was perfect,” he said, “but I just knew he was dead.”
This would be a tragic story even if the rock has simply come loose and fallen on its own. It is all the more tragic because the rock was thrown by someone on the ledge above them. Only after throwing the rock did the young man look over the ledge and see two men in white helmets, 200 feet beneath him. And at the same moment he registered their presence, the plummeting rock struck Pete directly on the head.
We must see ourselves as part of an intricate ecosystem. Before you throw that rock, look over the edge.
Hold presence for others
Follow your desire lines
Look over the edge
All of these require love: love for others, love your yourself, and love for community.
As the great 21st century philosopher, Johnny Depp, has said, “There are four questions of value in life … What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for, and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Love is the most important verb.
Change your verbs and you will change the landscape of your life:
Instead of knowing, I hope you will question.
Instead of accumulating, I hope you will give.
Instead of playing to win, I hope you will play to learn.
Instead of competing, I hope you will collaborate.
Instead of hating, I hope you will love.
Instead of remaining silent about inequities, I hope you will speak up.
Instead of despairing, I hope you will be happy in advance.
Instead of fleeing, I hope you will walk straight into all the days of your lives.
Instead of avoiding, I hope you will sit next to someone arm to arm.
Instead of diminishing, I hope you will know, deeply, that every human being you meet is as fully human as you are.
Instead of asking, ‘what will I get from this’, ask ‘what am I bringing to this’?
In addition to working, play.
In addition to protecting, open.
In addition to saving, give.
In addition to dreaming, do.
In addition to doing, dream.
Because it is your dream that matters now. Don’t feel panicked if you don’t know what that dream is yet. It is like those old roadside signs that used to spell out an advertisement one sign at a time as you went down the highway. While you’re navigating the landscape, the atlas of your life, the signs will come to you one by one. The way they connect isn’t known until you get to the last sign. The map is only complete when you stand at the final page of the atlas.
David Orr has written: “The plain fact is that the world does not need more successful people, but it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.”
I would ask you to choose being significant over being successful.
Wisdom sits in places. And it is clear that Guilford College has been for 175 years a place in which wisdom sits. But it doesn’t remain here, that wisdom. It wanders through landscapes unknown and unmarked, doesn’t it? And the wisdom that sits in this place now sits in you. I hope you will follow the desire lines of your life, through the geography of all those verbs that will make up your life, knowing deeply and fully – and without a doubt – that the wisdom from this place goes with you as you create your own atlas of experience.
My older daughter, Emma, is with me here today. When Emma was six and in the first grade, I picked her up from school at the end of the first week and we stopped by my husband’s bookstore. He came running out and said, excitedly, “How was school today, honey?”
She answered immediately and very happily: “I had my first test today!” Oh, good, my husband and I were thinking, a whole lifetime of testing has just opened up for you! Of course, what was our first question? “How’d you do?” What’s the bottom line, we both wondered. Again, without hesitation, Emma shouted, “I got 30 percent!” The body language between me and my husband was undeniable. We were looking over this tiny girl in the backseat at each other thinking, “Oh my god, she’s an idiot!”
I’m thinking, how hard could the first grade be? Wouldn’t they make it really possible to succeed on your first test? I nearly said the first thing that came to me, which was “Oh, honey, you must feel terrible.” But instead, what I did say, through some divine guidance, was “How did that make you feel?” “I GOT SOME RIGHT!” she shouted.
What a great way to see the world. I’m not suggesting that you shoot for 30 percent, but as you leave on your next journey, you’ll get some right, and you’ll get some wrong. Here’s another verb for you: Celebrate them both.
To the parents and loved ones of these men and women before me, congratulations on being the willing sherpas for this amazing journey.
And above all, congratulations to this beautiful Guilford College Class of 2012.
Risk your significance.
And as my daughter, Tess, said: Be free, have fun, bye.
As prepared for delivery at Commencement on May 5, 2012