sayeth oprah: “ask yourself what makes you come alive…”
dispatch from 02139 (in which the glorious “miss winfrey” — as the southern gentleman introduced her to the crowd — comes a-calling to commencement, and sends us forth…hot, sweaty and re-dialing our inner moral GPS…)
since, in all our together-in-chicago years, i’d never managed to amble over to that west loop studio of the glorious O herself, it was mighty considerate of veritas U to ink dear o-o-oprah in as this year’s commencement headliner.
why, with a mere 30,000 of us crammed in that polygon of grass and trees and library steps known in cambridgetown as tercentenary theatre, it was a veritable talk show a la fresco.
madam televangelist even joked, early on in her 29 minutes and 15 seconds of wisdom-spieling, that she’d hoped we might all be able to peek down under our chairs and find — voila! — free masters degrees and PhDs, which by harvard standards stirs a quicker pulse than the keys to any old lexus.
but that, dear friends, is leaping too far ahead into the proceedings of the 362d commencement of the oldest university in all the land.
back to the buzz that buzzed through cambridge, as the bells of harvard yard gonged once, then twice. and all of us, from points all around the square, we came trooping through the opened gates, first line of defense in the march toward harpo studios, 02138 edition.
we submitted to backpack checks, pulled proof-of-merit stubs from our sweaty pockets, and slogged through mud (for the night before the heavens opened wide and noah’s flood near poured). we found chairs that, had they toppled, would have slathered us in harvard ooze.
we sat through the blah-blah-blahs.
heard how the class of 1988 had raised a deficit-busting, all-time-record-setting $115 million (yup, you read that right, that was MILLION) in donations in just the last year, their 25th since graduation. we heard the sublime university president drew faust gilpin downplay her role as mere “warm-up act,” and acknowledge that there was “not a sea but a veritable ocean of anticipation” for the crimson-gowned miss winfrey who sat politely, legs primly crossed at the ankles, just a few feet away, as she awaited her turn at the podium.
and then, in all her splendor, the big O arose.
she belted out a wallop of basso profundo i swear they heard clear back in sweet home chicago: “O. My. Goodness! i’m at haaaaaaaaaarvaaaaaaarddd!”
“not too many little girls from rural mississippi make it all the way here to cambridge,” she began, though before she closed she spoke of khadija williams, one of the graduates of the harvard class of 2013 who had been homeless, attended 12 schools in 12 years, who “lived out of garbage bags,” who bathed in wal-mart restrooms so she could ditch the stench of the streets before walking into high school, and who, blessedly, had never ever veered from her holy path to college.
exuding that oprah-magic that has a way of making every couch potato in the country feel she’s the shoulder we can always lean on, that she’s with us in our skinned knees and our banged-up hearts, she mentioned straight off that she was addressing her remarks “to anybody who’s ever felt inferior, felt disadvantaged, anybody who’s felt screwed by life.”
not quite what you’d expect for a crowd of harvardians.
but, there, people, is the holy gospel. no one — not even harvard phi beta kappas — is immune from feeling less-than, marginalized, shoved to the sometimes sidelines.
and then, dear oprah got to the heart of the matter, what she called a fundamental truth: “it doesn’t matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble. because if you do what we are constantly doing, raising the bar; if you are constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, ” — and here she mentioned that even though she hadn’t gone to the ivy-tangled college, she was simpatico with the type-A harvard-hard-charging personality.
“it’s the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus,” she went on, “that predicts you will at some point fall.
“and when you do, i want you to remember this: there is no such thing as failure. failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
she paused, the wise one did.
then she picked right up, simpatico as ever: “now, when you’re down in the hole, it looks like failure,” she said, sister-to-sister style, as if no podium, no rows of 30,000 chairs stood between her broken heart and ours.
“this past year,” she let on, meaning when clear across the country her OWN network was branded a failure, “i had to spoonfeed those words to myself.”
take time, she advised, to mourn what you think you might have lost. “and here’s the key: learn. from. every. mistake.
“because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.”
step three: figure out the next right move.
to do that, she prescribed what she promised was the key to life: “develop an internal moral emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”
be willing, she all but preached, “to listen to, to be guided by, the still small voice within.”
amen, and hallelujah.
in fact, as soon as those three words — “still small voice” — spilled from oprah’s lips, the tall bespectacled fellow beside me turned and looked my way. we might not have succumbed to the GPS at our house, but we’re both believers in that still small voice within.
should you be so inclined, you can hear the whole of dr. winfrey’s wisdom words right here.
but one more blip of oprah-light before the standing ovation, mud-sunk heels and all:
“theologian howard thurman said it best,” O told us, “when he said…’ask yourself what makes yourself come alive. and go out and do that. because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”
and that, dear friends, will be one of the questions i carry home, as i commence this life ever after, a life — not merely a year — of thinking sumptuously: what is it, i ask and i ask, that makes me come alive?
i ask you too: what makes you come alive?
can you see itty-bitty oprah up above? she’s there i promise. just to the left of the tent pole, reaching down under her seat. might she be checking to see if someone left her a free doctorate degree? in fact they did. dr. winfrey, i presume.
No huge Oprah fan I, but wow, what a speech for her to to give now, there! Wow! Perfect ending to your time-out-of-time at Harvard.
Now you can come back to reality with the rest of us slackers and drink lemonade and watch birds in your summer house. (I just invited myself over.) We can talk about what makes us come alive, and make big plans to go do stuff, and rock in your chairs.
You know, I was never gaga for the O, but her words hold wisdom. And in the end, most of all, it’s Howard Thurman whose question bolts me upright: What makes you come alive?” The still small voice beckoned once again….
Sent from my iPhone
Am not an O fan either, and I can imagine you have a long list of others you may have preferred to hear, but you were meant to hear this, I guess, and it sounds like you have taken it in, as you always do. I long have felt that “commencement” was an odd word for the end of study, but really it is the beginning of the next thing, so what do I know?
I did today what makes me come alive — recorded an oral history for some dear friends in their 80s. We welled up more than once. I love capturing people’s stories for their children and grands. I would love to have my parents’ voices to hear, and to have had the chance to ask them more about their own stories, so I do it for others. It is a grace and a privilege. When you and the tall one are ready, just give a call. 🙂
oh, my gosh! i never ever knew you did that! i have long harbored a dream of doing some version of that, soaking up and writing down people’s stories. i must hear more about this. that is absolutely incredible. i have never heard of anyone who does it, and have always thought it seemed like the most sacred form of story-gathering. no wonder you not only thought of it, but are already deep into the art and ministry of doing it…. looks like we have a table of folks not rushing to the door to get to oprah’s. but, i must say, she is a HOOT! her theatricality alone was worth the price of admission. her wisdom was pure glory. xox
It looks like Oprah, like the gentlemen beside her, is looking for her shoes that got sucked down into the Harvard ooze…I always wonder if she gets the wobblies when she thinks of a little girl from rural Mississippi speaking before 30,000 thinkers, movers, and shakers in Cambridge? Or is she just wondering if the mud will come out of her shoes?
hilarious!!!! fine questions, all…..
Another Non O fan here…funny how we are of like minds here at the table. It was the first thing that came to mind when I saw the post and smiled when I saw the comments. I usually am on the defensive about this with most other people. I have been to her show and met her for a brief moment. Charisma oozes out of those eyes of hers. Still…there is something there that gives me pause regarding her.
Yet, I will say she is a seeker for our time. She has the courage to take the journey, honestly shares her experiences and connects people. There is value in that. We need story gatherers and story tellers of all ilk. Howard Thurman is more my kinda guy and there O goes…weaving brilliance together for the brilliance of the audience, reminding them and us that it is our small voices we live with in the wee hours of the morning as we ponder our alive questions.
Well Bam…you do the same seeking and frame great questions too…so I will leave O to her audience and quietly pull up to the table to listen to the stories here. The “chairs” here are worth the price of admission too. Happy Saturday! Enjoy your Bean Town Wind Down. 😉
this is all making me wonder, if WE could have picked a commencement speaker, who might it have been??? i will go with henry david thoreau, seeing as a visit to his cabin in the woods was one of the most stirring of my moments here. no, actually w.e.b. dubois stirred me to goosebumps, and doesn’t shy from naming what must be named. sister joan chittister? it’s interesting the filters that i consider when trying to think of someone whose wisdom would boom across an open plain, packed with wobbly oozy chairs. i suppose i more naturally prefer to take my wisdom quietly, turning one page after another….. my lack of imagination on this already steamy-hot saturday morning is frustrating me……i turn to chairs to bring some great ideas to the table….xoxo
Jeff Bridges & Bernie Glassman, as I am reading the The Dude & The Zen Master. It is a meandering compassionate dialogue about reality, illusion and spirituality.
Confession: Big Lebowski is one of the few movies I have ever loved and watch over and over. I don’t like film as a rule, but this one just bowled me over, pun intended.
These two have my vote…actually I would rather have a beer with them instead, but would tolerate a chair in mud among a throng.
as long as we are on the subject of commencement addresses, i just read a beautiful one from the wonderful president of amherst college, biddy martin (a great good soul i’d love to have as a friend). she ended her remarks to her graduating seniors with this poem. i loved it so much, i needed to bring it to the table….
I leave you the way I leave students at every Commencement, with a poem written by the great American poet A. R. Ammons. It’s called “Salute.”
a few years back, j.k. rowling gave the commencement address at harvard. it packed a wallop of wisdom, and for those more inclined, i offer the great wizard of hogwarts…
here’s a link to the transcript of her address:
I would love to hear Anna Quindlen. She wrote what is for me the go-to article about grief. You can find it here.
I have mailed copies of it to more people than I can remember. It says, somehow, what the heart feels but cannot speak.
Oprah. She is a union of opposites, is she not? Carl Jung coined this phrase and it is one of great truth for me. I would have said that I was not an Oprah fan, too, but when I was first separated from my husband with two semi-little kids and stripped even of the illusion that I knew where life would be going, I tuned into Oprah every morning. She peddled hope and I needed it. She has driven me nuts at times, as in her over-the-top 50th birthday party(ies), and she has moved me to tears at other times. A mixed bag, Oprah is, like the rest of us.
Wonderful post, Barb.