Two months ago, when Cary Hughes called me into his office, and shut the door behind me, I knew I was in trouble…
Today, I am honored and grateful to be given the opportunity to speak to you. But when I was asked to give this address, my first reaction was that I was the least likely person to be chosen for this. My second reaction was panic. What could I say that might be of any value to you, on the threshold of your adult lives and about to graduate from high school, wondering what the future holds, and how you will find your place in it?
Perhaps all I can do is suggest a few things that I believe are important, that have mattered to me, that I have learned, and that may help you to discover those things that are important to you, the things that you will want to build a life around.
Since my first years out of high school did not unfold according to my carefully crafted, well-designed, original plan. I’ll take the risk of telling you that what you do after high school, and if, when, or where you go to college is really not of the greatest importance. Who you marry has more lasting consequences.
But for now, you don’t need to find that one thing that will define your life’s work, not now, or anytime soon. All you need is a direction, and a passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. After a while, you will begin to see a pattern, you will see how you can best be of service, and you will find that place where your skills, your passion and the world’s need come together. That is what will define your mission, and your calling. And it will find you, if you are awake, and paying attention.
So be awake, and pay attention.
I’d like to start with a story about how I found my direction, then lost it, and then found it again.
I was sitting in my second grade classroom. The teacher was going over a math problem – probably for the third or fourth time, as some of the students were still confused. I was bored. I became so frustrated by the glacial pace of the lesson that I put my head down on my desk and I cried. Loud and hard. I was sent to the principal’s office, my parents were called, and it was recommended that I be taken to the NYU Child Study Center for neuropsychological evaluation. I have a memory of doing a bunch of puzzles and answering a lot of questions, and of a fear that there must be something wrong with me, why was I singled out? After three days of testing, the diagnosis came back, believe it or not - that I was bored. My school responded by immediately skipping me up to the 3rd grade, and, in what I now see as a stroke of genius on the part of the school, and amazing good luck for me– I was also given a pass to the art room, to be used whenever I needed it. It was my ticket to freedom, and I used it, often. Art became my salvation, and a source of continuing absorption.
I attended the High School of Music & Art, one of five specialized High School’s in NYC, with over 2000 students who were all aspiring artists or musicians. These schools were created to give students who knew what they wanted to do (or at least, thought they did), the chance to focus on a particular interest. Here, I found other creative misfits, who liked the same things I did, and it was a wonderful place to grow up, but by the end of my senior year, I was ready to move on. What I wanted more than anything else at that time, was freedom, and permission – freedom to experiment and permission to make mistakes. To not have to get it right the first time. To not study for the test. I have no memory of my own high school graduation because I wasn’t there. I missed it to take a job designing sets for a summerstock theater. In the fall, instead of continuing my art education, I started in the theatre program at NYU, leaving after a year and a half, having taken all the classes I felt I needed. I worked for peanuts in theatres around NY until I was able to prove my worth and get the real jobs.
By the time I was 30, I realized I had everything I’d ever wanted – a successful career in NY theater, a city apartment, a country house on a lake, a husband, friends, a garden, a cat, and a baby on the way. I could see a long road ahead of continuing….more of the same…of getting locked in….
And I bailed out. I left the city (taking the husband, the baby, and the cat) to become a back-to-the-land, organic-gardening, sheep and chicken raising hand-weaver, working the circuit of craft fairs – (it was the 80’s…. it seemed like a good idea at the time).
Next, I trained as a yoga instructor, therapist, and healing practitioner, and founded one of the first yoga centers in New Hampshire, which I ran for several years. After moving to Wilton, building on my early music training, I developed a career as a professional harpist, performing and teaching on pedal and Celtic harp.
Any one of these pursuits could fill a lifetime, but I felt uncomfortable letting my work define me, or limit my ability to explore all the different aspects of learning that I enjoy, including the freedom to reinvent myself, and try new things.
The benefits have been many – I’ve been able to travel the world, meet interesting people, and better understand, out of my own experience, a variety of divergent perspectives in the lives of others. But there is also a cost –and I’m not suggesting that this is the right choice for everyone. Careers build momentum over time if you can stay the course, and there is much to value in that. I think I just hadn’t found the one that felt complete.
I’ve returned to painting, after going back to college and completing my degree in fine art. I decided that this is what I love best, and being a working artist means that I am willing to do the work it takes to make art-making my living, daily preoccupation.
Most of the time, there is nothing I’d rather be doing, but it took me quite a while to settle down and make space for it – you see, I loved it too much to risk failure.
Thinking back, my path through education was the genesis of my conviction that the arts are not only essential to education, but need to be positioned at the very heart of it – for everyone, now more than ever. That is what eventually brought me to Waldorf education, and to High Mowing, for my own children, so that they too would know the creative freedom that comes from an education that liberates from within.
So here is what I hope you take forward with you:
Cultivate your imagination and your creativity. Art Making is not just for artists – and it’s not just a leisure activity, or something that children should do while they’re young, as most people often think of it. It can, of course, be enjoyed in a leisurely, recreational way, as a life-long pursuit, and as a balance to other worldly concerns. I think that for this reason it is frequently considered a marginal activity in our society and in our schools. When time and resources are limited, the arts are the first to go in favor of more serious subjects such as math, science, and language arts. We are taught mathematics, for example, so that we develop certain capacities considered essential for functioning in society, and for the development of rational, logical habits of thought. These are good things - but for some reason, the arts are not recognized in the same way - as a training ground for the development of imagination and creativity, which is the source of all new ideas – in math, science, language, indeed, all worthwhile human endeavor. Does one ever hear from well-meaning relatives– “don’t study math, you’ll never get a job” – yet one often hears the admonition to avoid the arts – “you won’t be able to make a living”.
I believe that the practice of some kind of artistic endeavor is essential for effectively addressing the whole of life from a creative perspective. Without the arts, we too quickly forget our human capacity as creators. And this is what is needed more than any other skill, now, and in the future. This is what you have to give.
Creativity grows out of taking action. It’s not the pre-requisite, so don’t wait around for that lightning bolt of inspiration to get started.
Creativity is a limitless resource given to all, not just a select few. It builds with practice, so, like everything else, the more you practice, the better you get at it, and the better you get, the more enjoyable it becomes. And according to Albert Einstein, who knew a thing or two about it, creativity is contagious, so pass it on!
Human nature insists on being creative. A creative life is one that you make up as you go along. It is cast in the crucible of what happens to you, that you cannot control, and what you do with it, which is entirely your choice. Make sure your choices support the person you want to be, because you will live with this person for the rest of your life.
I would urge you all to continue the practice of whatever artistic activity you are drawn to, for the value to yourself, as well as to others - be it music, or drawing, painting, dance, drama, photography, pottery, textiles, woodworking, blacksmithing, cooking, anything that requires action, skill, and freedom for creative invention. It is as essential to a healthy and balanced life as exercise, sleep, and good nutrition. This is something you must give to yourself, and it is not a luxury. And besides, it’s fun. It will help you live your life with a curious mind, and an open heart.
Artists are people who enjoy surprising themselves. Keep it up and I promise you, you’ll never be bored! There are some people who can’t get enough of this. Those who choose to make a life in the arts have much in common, I think, with teachers, nurses, farmers, and many others who choose an undervalued or underpaid profession. Wendell Berry asks, “Why do they do it? Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.”
The two most powerful forces that you have to give to the world (and, by the way, to yourself) are your attention, and your love. If you forget everything else I say today, please remember that. One without the other is never enough, and everyone has a limitless capacity for both, so you can give generously without the fear that you will ever run out. In fact, both seem to grow and multiply the more you give. Think about that for a minute – how many things can we truly say that about?
So, first and foremost, attend to your state of mind – it’s the key to everything, and the work of a lifetime. Methodically, relentlessly, and continually cultivate your mind, your will, and your heart, for a path of action. The world you imagine is the world you will create, and the choices you make, day-by-day, large and small, determine the habits of mind that shape the person you are, and who you become. It’s up to you how you choose to construct meaning from your experience.
Find your heroes, your mentors and teachers, emulate and learn from them, but try to stay conscious of your own feelings, reactions, desires, and what you have to give, and why its important. And, at the same time, pay attention to the needs of others, and choose to be kind – it’s feels better for everyone. Spend more time listening to yourself as well as to others – it can be quite humbling. Thomas Merton may have had this in mind, when he observed, “It takes heroic humility to be yourself and to be nobody but the person, or the artist, that you are intended to be.” Be happy to be yourself. Remember there’s only one of you, and everyone else is taken.
So…what has High Mowing given you? Your parents and teachers have given you an education based in freedom, and encouraged you to think for yourselves. You’ve created your own textbooks, illustrated them, explored the world’s cultures and history, learned about the natural world, how to survive in the woods, performed in plays, concerts, and coffee houses, made beautiful and useful things with your hands, sang, and danced, and formed deep bonds of friendship and connection in your hearts. But the greater part of what you leave here with may still be invisible to you – as it most likely is to your parents, teachers, and others who know you – and that is, that which, in you, has not been suppressed, taken away, obstructed or denied. The whole purpose and meaning of this place is to help clear the path for you, as much as possible in four years, so that you may exercise your birthright: to grow fully and without hindrance into the person you are here on this earth to become, and do the work you came to do.
This is what a HM education has prepared you for, and there’s no greater gift. You don’t need to change the world. You only need to attend to the small part of it that is put in front of you, and calls out your name. Be patient. You’ll know it when it comes, and I promise you it will never be more than you can handle, although it may stretch you at times.
Whether or not you go on to college, now is the time to take charge of your own education. Take the time ahead to explore, take chances, to grow as a human being. You educate yourself through the choices and mistakes that you make. Make them thoughtfully, consciously, but not care-fully, make them fearlessly, with courage. I’ll leave you with this advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Don’t be too squeamish or timid about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better.”
I’ve found the arts are a great proving ground for these experiments. First, because there’s no place to hide, and second, the consequences of a failed art experiment tend not to be too dire, and they can teach you a lot about yourself, and about life, if you’re awake and paying attention.
So be awake, and pay attention.
Do the stuff that only you can do, and do it with all your love and attention…Your life will be filled with happiness and meaning when these experiments begin to show you the way.
And they will.
So give it all you’ve got. Nothing else really matters.