For the Graduates

I’ve reached the age in which my nieces and nephews are graduating from high school, where gift-giving calls for a waffle-maker or a mini fridge rather than a Matchbox car, a stuffed teddy. It is jarring, always, for the adult to find she is the adult.

I’d imagine it is even moreso jarring for a kid to find they’re one, too.

Tis the season, then, for the commencement address. Offered as early as 1642, the tradition invites a new generation to sit cross-legged in lawn chairs, draped in royal polyester and acetate, tasseled caps at the ready. The custom calls for advice dispensed, for life to be made meaningful in an oratory roughly twelve minutes or less.

And while I will likely never be asked to offer a commencement address of any substance, I have always been one for pausing to mark an occasion in writing. This one’s for my nieces, my nephews, and yours – for the contemporaries of our day.

To you, dear graduates, a non-commencement address:

First, the bad news.

You have been taught a lie. You have been told that today is the first day of the rest of your life, that you are turning over a new leaf, that life is suddenly beginning for you.

Life is not suddenly beginning for you. It has already begun, and you have proof of it all in your heartbreaks and triumphs, in every last charm and fiasco. You, our great and beautiful youth, have walked the ground longer than the lifespan of a dragonfly, far beyond a chameleon’s years. You have outlived the cherry tree. You stand taller than the wildflowers in Mount Rainier; collectively, you outnumber the entirety of our known oceanic species.

No, your life does not start today. It has already started. It has been set in motion, joining 7 billion others, time ticking recklessly beyond our scope of understanding.

This is not your commencement; this is your continuing.

Your life began years ago when you joined this wide and wild world, when you were thrown into spinning chaos to learn (and teach) what it means to love greatly.

You have learned this over and over. You learned this when your guinea pig died, when your friend left, when the diagnosis came, when the glass shattered, when the rumor spread, when the best man didn’t win – when you didn’t either.

You learned it in the cold water and the stage fright, in that long black night you danced again and again to Beyonce, all sweat and tears and wonder.

You learned that beautiful things happen. You learned that good things end.

You will keep learning this forever.

I have, then, no words for you on starting anew. But I do have words for you on continuing.

And so, the good news.

You already know what you need to know to succeed in life, because you are already succeeding. You are facing a broken world, one where coffee is astronomically expensive and gunshots are echoing and your abs aren’t quite what you’d like them to be.

A planet in which, upon walking on the same sidewalk as another, you will become oppressed in ways that are not fair, and you will oppress others in ways that are also not fair. You will walk anyway. You will do your best to do harm to the least.

Might we call that a miracle?

You have everything you need to keep going. To continue. To keep the plates spinning. To drop one, if you’d like.

You have made choices, shed tears, laughed loudly. You have hiccuped. You have blinked 190 million times. Your arm has, with hope, fallen asleep beneath someone you have loved.

Might we call that, too, a miracle?

And so, my hope for you today, and every day in your continuation, is that you will witness this miracle, each bruise and breath and Band-Aid. That you will see your generation as we see your generation: one of strength and wisdom and great, great hope. One that mesmerizes us, like a fire we can’t turn away from, like a fire that enchants.

Like a fire that sparks, spreads, warms an entire nation.

Other hopes: that your parking meter be ever full. That you eat your vegetables. That you will meet your future spouse after a terrifically poor haircut, so that every day after he/she will marvel at your vast and inexplicable improvement, at his/her vast and inexplicable luck.

I hope the futon is on sale. I hope you wear sunscreen, call your grandmother. I hope you remember your pin number and forget your phone. I hope you floss. Hum in the hallway. I hope you take a Jeep ride under the moon, taste dandelion wine on a rickety front porch. Bathe in a creek, sleep on a floor. Break dance in Chipotle. Carry your friends. I hope for you more love than loss, more questions than answers, more books than nightstand. I hope you’re kind to the waitress. I hope you get leg room on the way to Florence.

I hope you look to your future, yes, but also lock eyes with your past. I hope you see that it has mattered, every scrape and shout and smile.

But mostly: I hope you dare to be ordinary. I hope you allow yourself a handful of terrible jobs and long commutes and bad dates. That you get tongue-tied on conference calls, botch the interview. I hope you find the miracle even then, in the most uncomfortable, unfortunate of instances.

(I hope you forgive yourself when you can’t.)

Welcome to the miracle, dear graduates.

Beautiful things happen. Good things end. Here we are anyway.

Congratulations to you on this remarkable blip.

May your continuing dazzle us all.

  • Erin, my last baby –my daughter is graduating from high school in six weeks. I’ve been doing fine with all the preparations for graduation and beyond… until I read this. Now I’m a mess! When she was born, 31 days after Y2K, the Graduating Class of 2018 seemed so far away. In the blink of an eye – here it is.

    Your words ring true for so many of her experiences through the years and of my hopes for her future. I’ll tuck this away for a few weeks then give it to her along with my own memories and wishes for her. Thank you so much for your thoughts this morning!

    • Jule, I graduated high school in 2000 just when your daughter was born, and I am glad you plan to give your daughter these words! I wish someone would have given me something like this. She might roll her eyes, but make her read it and then make her tuck it away in a special place, in a keepsake box because when she 18 years older and possibly a mom herself, she is going to want to re-read these words and remember to call her grandmother, sit down her phone, and teach her kids to floss. At 35 she is going to need to be reminded to hum in the hallway, dance more and to just be satisfied being herself.

      Congratulations to you and your daughter and I wish you the best as you both continue on into the next phase of your lives!

    • Oh Julie, what an honor to play a minor role in encouraging your sweet daughter — thank you for passing these small words to her! What a gift your memories and wishes will be, and what a gift she has in you. Sending love to you this season – I can only imagine the whirlwind of emotions that arrive with ushering your child into the world. May your own continuing dazzle us, as well.

  • This: You have everything you need to keep going. To continue. To keep the plates spinning. To drop one, if you’d like. Especially to drop one if you’d like (that’s the secret sometimes). Also— the dandelion wine!!!—may we all dare to see the extraordinary in the ordinary—this is where I am keeping my bookmark on life’s pulse currently.

    Love it all—thank you a million times for opening my scaly eyes.

  • Erin your words are spot on!!! Every time! You amaze and delight me with your writing. Thank you!

  • “I hope you dare to be ordinary” – such an important sentiment that it’s okay to shine in amazing ways that might on the surface seem ordinary but each life is extraordinary all on it’s own. Thank you for a lovely message to graduates and reminder for those of us who have long since passed through graduation.

  • “It is jarring, always, for the adult to find she is the adult.”
    If that isn’t the Lord’s truth.

  • This is probably one of the most beautiful posts I’ve ever read. It is heart warming and heart stirring. It is soul touching and made my eyes well up. Thank you for this lovely message. I can’t wait to share it with others. Blessingsto you, Erin xo

  • I personally think that this should be a commencement speech. It is inspiring and true. These are the things that all new adults need to hear. Thank you for sharing your wonderful words with us.

  • absolutely beautiful. your blog is my new favorite. everything you share truly touches my heart. thank you.

  • I am saving this to give to my son tonight as he ia about to graduate. I love the idea that this is a continuation, not a beginning.

  • Girl, you leave a stamp on the heart that cannot be undone. On my daughter’s 110th day in the NICU, I wrote a letter for her 18th birthday. It is signed, sealed and all tied up in ribbons. I truly hope it imparts even a sliver of the wisdom you have offered here. I am thrilled to have your words to offer her at graduation. She wants nothing more than to be an author, so I think this will have special meaning for her. Thank you.

    • Oh Jennifer, what a beautiful gift to your daughter!!!! And please send her my way if she’s ever in need of a resource! Happy to send her my favorite books for writers. :) Blessings to you on your daughter’s continuation! :)

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