Since it is unlikely that I will be invited back to my alma mater to give the commencement address, I decided that I will write my own.
In three words, I can offer this advice to young people who are launching into the bigger world: remember this moment. Not this exact moment, although receiving your diploma is probably worth remembering, depending on your experience. I’m talking about the moments to come. They are the ones that will be the most elusive to imprint. Life moves faster all the time and it is hard to pay attention when you’re worrying about money, feeling lonely, or diving headlong into work.
The years ahead will be filled with momentous occasions: landing your first professional job, buying a car, turning 30, falling in love, moving to a new city or town or state, being unemployed, getting married, putting a down payment on a house, raising children, turning 40, losing a parent, embarking on a new career. These are big moments, both good and bad. We each experience them, not exactly in the same way or in the same order. You will remember these moments almost effortlessly because they influence every aspect of your life.
It is the smaller moment, the one you must consciously tell yourself to remember, of which I speak. The discreet, barely surfaced moment that is your treasure.
The exact moment when you fell in love. You saw the profile of her face as she cut the flowers for the vase. That imperfect nose and high cheekbones. She closed her eyes to smell the phlox. It was such a minor thing but it was everything. Take a snapshot in your mind.
When you and your friends are sprawled out on couches and on the floor after a night of dancing or talking or celebrating the Friday-ness of Friday, don’t drink so much that you forget it all. You will have made new stories of stupid feats and given each other invented words to describe joy. When you hear the robins calling as night mysteriously slides into dawn, go outside, tell yourself to listen and remember, look back inside the house at your friends: remember their disheveled, exceptional selves.
Fix inside your head talking with a stranger on the subway, the one whose socks don’t match and is nervous about an interview. Notice the drivers on the road: the singing ones, the others who are talking to themselves, the ones who rest their elbows on the door out of boredom, stuck in traffic. One day you will see someone crying as they drive. Remember that too.
Pay attention to the slanting light in each season, the elongating shadow of trees, the scent of grass and lilacs, the paper cups and abandoned balloons on the street after a festival, the neighbor’s daily ritual of checking the mailbox and taking down the flag. He is more hunched over now, your neighbor. He wheezes as he walks.
If you travel, look outside the window from the taxi or a train, note the names of streets. Watch the rainwater drain.
If you have children, pay attention to their expressions – the smile that curves higher up on the left side, the forehead that scrunches up when the dog barks, the head shake at a corny joke. Stop. Look around. Be amazed by their resilience as they try to learn how to tie their shoes or ride a bike or conquer a math problem. We never stop learning but we frequently stop being amazed by it.
Hold your father’s hand and trace the lines along his palm. You know this hand like your own but you will forget the knowing unless you hold it again. Remember its strength, how it swung patiently by his side, waiting for you, walking along the cracked suburban sidewalk in which wild grasses have begun to grow.
None of these things will save your life. They won’t make you rich or wise or help you find a mate. You will not achieve enlightenment.
Strung together, these simple, innocuous moments will thread a reel of film, a narrative, a story of how you and others—friends and strangers, lovers, family—lived in this time and space. Maybe you will see that reel in your mind again and again, reminding you that it never really ends. And when you get to middle age and the slowing down of your body and the speeding up of years, your story brings you comfort of a life well-lived. It grounds you to this earth.