Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Commencement Speech - May 27, 2012: "The Trouble with Instinct"

The Cate School seniors, class of 2012, were kind enough to invite me to deliver an address at their commencement ceremony this past Sunday, May 27.

What follows is the transcript:

Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Williams, esteemed guests, trustees, class of 2012, I want to thank you for inviting me to speak today. It is an honor.

Let me repay your kindness by telling you just how profound my admiration is for what you've accomplished here. Whoever said youth is wasted on the young clearly never set foot on this campus. I think you've managed your time here -- collectively and individually -- with extraordinary grace and energy and flexibility, because it is a kind of gymnastic that we ask of you here, to proceed on any given day from a Schoolhouse 1 to a science lab, to the playing field or the pool or the gym, to the ceramics barn, to the theater, the art room, the chapel, the list goes on -- but to perform in each of these venues at such a high level, and so devotedly. Maybe you think that's natural. It's not. It's amazing to watch, and humbling and inspiring. So thank you.

Having said that, this special little window -- in which you're able to engage so intensely in so many different pursuits -- is hard to keep open. Even next year, as your horizons broaden, your focus will begin to tighten, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In order to become more accomplished and to make your fullest contribution, you may need to focus more than a place like Cate really allows.

Choices lie ahead, and it is in context of these (I hate say) rather significant choices, that commencement speakers such as myself will tell soon-to-graduates like you things like "Don't compromise your beliefs," "Trust your instinct," "Follow you heart." Steve Jobs said it rather famously, and who better? "Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

And I of course agree with that.

I guess my only question is: how? For most people, telling them to follow their heart is a little like shouting "Open your eyes!" at a blind man: That's the whole problem. We'd follow our hearts in a second if we knew what the damned thing was telling us. How do we know?

There are really only two arenas in which I've had any notable experience with instinct, or intuition; one would be my writing, and the other would be in how I got to be a father.

And the two actually came together at one point

I wrote a book about the journey my wife and I took to parenthood. It was a long one -- the journey, not the book -- that led the two of us through what seemed an endless maze of doctor's offices and clinics and lawyers' offices and agencies and municipal government buildings. You don't have to think about that stuff right now. Just know that when you go through something like that, years and years of wanting something that much, trying everything you can think of to attain it, but still failing over and over and over, it takes a toll. You begin to lose faith in a lot of things, including your instincts. You feel like you must not be reading signals correctly, because you're not making good choices, clearly. That's how we felt.

And yet, when our path finally took us all the way to the far side of the world, to a beautiful little town called Tomsk, in Siberia, it turned out to be a moment of overwhelming instinct, heeded at tremendous risk, that finally delivered us to our son Theo.

So I wrote a book about that.

And whenever anybody reads the book -- anyone who knows me -- they will invariably ask, what about Ada?

Ada is Theo's sister. She's nineteen months younger than he is, and she was born about five-hundred miles south of Tomsk, in Kazakhstan, in a town called Ust-kamenogorsk, which roughly translates to mean "the rubble in the valley." So people will often ask me "When does Ada get her book? Seems only fair."

I hesitate for two reasons:

The first is that I make it a policy never to write a sequel to any of my books unless someone with money specifically asks me to

Second, what happened in Kazakhstan wasn't really as dramatic, in the traditional sense, as what took place in Tomsk.

In Tomsk-- and again, I don’t want to go too far into it -- but my wife and I were literally handed a gift that for some mysterious and inexplicable reason -- born of intuition -- we could not bring ourselves accept, and because of that refusal we were forced to confront the possibility not only that everything we had been working toward for the previous seven years wasn't going to happen; but that maybe it shouldn't happen. Maybe the whole idea of our being parents had been ill-conceived, because we were clearly broken in some fundamental way. What other explanation was there?

We stewed in that idea -- and the fact that we were now resolved to reject our last best chance at ever being parents -- for one night, which was without question the darkest night I've known, or hope to know. The following day by noon, however, under an equally inexplicable set of circumstances, I found myself feeling more elated, more triumphant, more -- I have to say -- cosmically vindicated than I had ever felt in my life, or ever expect to.

So the trip definitely worked out -- miraculously so -- but it was an absolutely harrowing experience, and far more dramatic, and traumatic and gut-wrenching, than I would wish upon my worst enemy. In fact, if you'd close-miced me at any point during our last day in Tomsk -- and this was after the clouds had parted -- you'd have heard me murmuring the same five words over and over again like a mantra:

"Ain't go'n be no re-match . . . Aint go'n be no rematch."

Yet two years later, there we were climbing the ring again to go get Ada. Why? Because Elizabeth and I had envisioned more. We envisioned a sibling for Theo, and whether that was Instinct or the Height of Ingratitude, there seemed to be only one way to find out.

But as I say, this was a very different experience. Challenging, no question, but more muted.

The first time we went to meet Ada, for instance: We were in the office of the director of the Babyhouse, which is what they called this particular orphanage. For reasons that made no sense to me at the time, and still don't, the agents had to bring in another baby for us to meet first, on the understanding that the second child we were going to meet was the one to whom we had been "betrothed," as it were. So they bring in the first baby, a girl. Beautiful, black-eyed, heart-shaped face, and we actually have to hold her, and play, and go through this weird Kabuki where everyone in the room knows this is not the child we're here to see, or bring home. And this little girl seemed to know it too somehow, like this wasn't the first time she'd run this drill. And I can still see her face as she's sitting in my lap looking up at me, registering the emotional obscenity of this moment. It was brutal, as you can imagine, and a very disconcerting way to set your palette.

Then they brought in Ada.

Now many of you here know Ada. I don't think I'm just being a proud father when I say that if the phrase "delightful hopping ball of sun-filled love-emitting energy" had not been coined by some Japanese novelty t-shirt, someone would have to come up with it to describe Ada. She is an absurdly, ridiculously fun and infectious joyful spirit . . .

Well, not in Kazakhstan.

I jump to the third time we saw her. This was in the main nursery area. There were about ten children in there, none of them older than a year -- stationed in various playpens and high chairs. We walk in and they all look up at us -- and babies, just so you know, even babies who've spent their whole lives in babyhouses -- are not cynical. They see two parental types walk in a room, their faces light up. They all start smiling and reaching out to us -- "Hi!" -- all except for one, who is sitting alone in a pen at the back of the room, a giant crib, and she's got her legs (which were very skinny back then) stuck halfway through the rails, and she's looking at us, dead on, like this…like she might as well already be thirteen; like "Where the hell have you guys been?"

And I get it. I understood, but I wanted to say, "All right, all right, just give me a minute here." Because the truth is, this thing we were doing -- adopting a second child into a new family -- is an extremely delicate maneuver.

I mentioned Theo. Theo was with us, and thank God he was there because he was definitely the coolest one among us. He was like that guy from the Dos Equis beer ad -- he's walking around, tipping cabbies and doormen. "We're going to get my sister? Great. I'll bring a banjo."

That is, until we actually get in there. That's when things get a little dicey, because from his perspective, when we actually get in there and start doing this thing, that means having to watch Mom and Dad go into this strange room and pick up this other child whom they've never met, and right away start using the same tones of voice they use with you; the same expressions on their faces, same gestures, the same toys they gave you are now being handed this strange little girl. If you see that and you don't find it painful and confusing and . . . scary, then you're not paying attention. And Theo pays attention. It may have been that same visit, one of these scenes was unfolding in front of him. I think he may have just been watching Elizabeth take Ada from one of the caretakers, but this sound came out of him, spontaneously, this perfectly non-verbal, almost selfless expression of Oooooh-whaaaaat-is-happening-to-my-universe?…

So we decided, maybe we should do this in shifts -- all go in together, say hi, but then take turns. One of us would visit with Ada, the other would grab a toy truck and take Theo downstairs to this empty little playground they had next to the parking lot. We did this for him, as I say -- not to shove in his face what was going on upstairs -- but I'll admit, I was doing it for me, too, because I was struggling.

We'd been so happy back home in New York (which is where we were living at the time). We'd finally gotten something right, remember? We felt so blessed, and now we were just going to roll the dice again? Change it inalterably? What we were doing in Kazakhstan -- in the long run I knew it was right, I did -- but at the same time, it posed a direct and immediate threat to a joy I had been feeling that I didn't think I was ever going to get to feel.

So it was a struggle, setting that energy aside when it was my turn to go up and see Ada, because she was in an odd spot, too, obviously, trying to figure out who these people were and could they be trusted.

But we just kind of muscled through it, all of us. It's funny, Ada's and my first moments of real connection, that she initiated: I'd be holding her -- and this was when it was just the two of us -- and she would look me straight in the eye, very close, with this very penetrating, peering, "can I trust you?" look -- then she'd just tilt her forehead into mine. (Doink.) It was a very fitting gesture in a way, this deliberate third-eye collision -- because it is warm, and connecting, but it's also hard and it hurts if you don't do it right…

So that's what happened in Kazakhstan. That's what that book would be about: all of us just ploughing ahead, pulling our shifts, and waiting for the fear and the protectiveness to subside and be replaced by its opposite.

For you sports fans out there, if what happened in Tomsk was like a Hail Mary pass -- and it was -- what happened in Kazakhstan was three yards and a cloud of dust, all the way down field.

And the reason I'm telling you this -- because I can sense some of you may have begun wondering (I know my wife is wondering) -- the reason I'm telling you this is both to warn you and to reassure you, I hope, that there is no formula for figuring out what your heart is telling you, or how to follow it.

There will be times you'll feel like maybe you need to give up on your dream, and that will be the right thing to do, either because another dream will come along, or maybe because you just needed to let go for a second, and your first dream will come spilling in on you like a closet full of tennis balls

And there will be other times you just need to lower your shoulder and drive from your legs. And how will you know which is which? (Shrug) Instinct comes with a very complex and customized decoder ring, and no one talking into a microphone could ever presume to tell you how to read yours.

But I will, since I have the mic, give you this one tip, based in no small part upon the experiences I've been describing. Make of it what you will.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that your heart is interested in what comes easy, and I know this from my writing as well, in fact, (but don't worry, I'll make this quick). The funny thing about writing books is that, for all the work that goes into them -- all the research, the outlines, the writing and revising -- each one winds up teaching you one thing (if you're lucky), and that is how to write it, which is a useless piece of information once you've figured it out. Once you're done, you go right back to square one, trying to figure out what you're going to do next, and how.

If you're like me, a couple ideas will occur: there'll be that one you think about and you kind of like it because you're pretty sure you can handle it. You think, "Yeah, I see that. In fact I know exactly how I'd do that. Maybe I could even knock that one out in a year, right? Easy."

Then there'll be that other idea. You can see it, but there's also something about it -- maybe it's the story, or a character or some narrative maneuver you have in mind -- but there's some built-in black hole right in the middle of it that makes you think, "I have no idea how I would pull that off.' Something that just makes the whole idea seem mildly impossible.

And what I am suggesting to you is that if this really is your heart talking to you about what you want to do with your life, it's going to choose option B every time, the one that seems impossible, because your heart, as it turns out, is not interested in the downhill slope, or what you're pretty sure you can handle. Your heart really just wants to expand, and it's using you to do it, so the hardest thing you can imagine -- the hardest thing you can imagine -- that is exactly what it wants to do.

And as for that other voice you're going to be hearing along the way -- heck, I'll bet some of you have been hearing it a lot the last few months -- the voice that says, "I got this. I actually know how this goes, I can handle this, no problem" -- on this day of days, hear me when I say: that's not you heart telling you that you've arrived, or that you've made it, or that you have finally found yourself.

That's your heart telling you you're done.

Go in peace, class of 2012, and knock 'em dead