Thank you very much. Welcome to all of you on this wonderful day. Welcome to the yearning, exhausted, excited students; to the supportive, depleted, hopeful parents; to the patient, exhausted, depleted, determined faculty; to all of the yearning for a beer, exhausted, excited, supportive, depleted, determined, patient, and hopeful among you. To those with a clue, and those without a clue.
It is with some surprise and much heartfelt gratitude that I stand before you today. This is an honor I never expected to receive, and my children are here to make sure they’re actually seeing this so they can believe it. I am delighted to be here, and I thank you. Extra credit has in fact turned out to be a good thing. And to quote Thomas Jefferson (I think that’s the only quote of the day), “Failure has turned into success. The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.” And I am reluctant to tell anyone anything, because how can anyone know how the future will reveal itself? Having said that, I will proceed to tell you things that I know, and things that I don’t know.
We live between despair and hope. No one knows why we are here, and nothing makes sense. Don’t forget that. You could ask yourself, “What is the point?” until you go crazy, literally. So, the starting point is to not know. And then to proceed. And what do we proceed with? There can only be two things, work and love. And I am not sure anyone knows what love is or how it changes or how you change, so we will put that aside for a minute (it’s a little complicated) and think about work.
It is not always easy to work. It takes great courage. And often you have to force yourself, or find someone else to force you to create. And if the person forcing you is also the person who loves you, you are very lucky. I was lucky in many ways. I met a mad Hungarian named Tibor. We were eighteen at NYU in summer flunk out class. And the collection of lazy nitwits in that class was impressive. I wore unfortunate bell-bottoms and spent a lot of time daydreaming. He wore unfortunate bell-bottoms and was trying to overthrow the government. We started to date. I was knitting him a red sweater; he was reading Mao’s Red Book. There was the Vietnam War. Feminism, thank god, arrived one Thursday night. We both dropped out and read Baba Ram Dass, who wisely told us to be here now, that we didn’t know where we were.
I went to Paris to sit in cafes and write terrible poetry. He went to Cuba to cut sugar cane and help Castro. Someone needed to help Castro, and it seemed that this guy from Poughkeepsie was the one to do it. More time passed. We went back to school. We dropped out again. I went to the Caribbean with a guy who I thought was a poet, but later turned out to be an accountant. Not necessarily a bad thing, but still. Not what I thought. Tibor joined a commune in New Jersey to organize workers who may or may not have wanted to be organized. We were young and stupid and no one told us what to do or what not to do. Our partings were cataclysmic. I despaired. Could a bad poet from the Bronx and a nearsighted revolutionary from Poughkeepsie ever find happiness? In bell bottoms, no less.
Somehow the fates intervened, and we were reunited. We were in love, very simple. And we married and had two children who we adored. And then this other thing happened. We both started to work and find our way. He in a bookstore designing the windows and then the ads, I beginning to draw and deciding that being a cartoonist or humorist was a good way to live. And we started to work together, and begin a conversation that never ended and knew no limits. And we didn’t think we had to choose one thing, we thought we could choose everything. And we also began to understand that to care passionately about your work will keep you, dare I say it, happy.
How does this happen? Perseverance, and patience, and a willingness to believe in your instincts. We used to say at work, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” a quote by Einstein, covering all of our lack of knowledge. But it’s still a very smart thing to know. To be adamant about having a sense of humor. To use a pencil. To be curious, and wonder, and not know. To remember your childhood, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. To remember the meals together, the rooms that you sat in, the songs that were sung, the arguments you had, the truths you told, the lies you told, the lies you tell. The compassion that arrives, the sarcasm that follows. Those memories will nourish your work.
My parents left Russia after one too many pogroms. We left Israel when I was very young, and came to the United States. Goodbye to the blue ocean and sun and sand and the family, hello to the dizzying tumult and massive city of New York with hamburgers frying and people racing about. The land of can-do. The promised land called The Bronx. We found our bearings in various ways, but my parents never lost their otherness. My mother, who I speak of often, was a woman of great irreverence and great beauty.
My mother Sarah is somebody that I always show in my talks because she is inspirational, and I will show you why. I grew up in a household that valued culture, but you were not really expected to know anything. That’s beautiful situation. There were no expectations or questions. We were left in peace.
Some years ago I asked a number of people to draw a map of the United States from memory, quickly. People tried hard to get it right. This is my mother’s map, by far the best of any that were made.
I hope you can see what’s going on there. And I’m sure Providence, Rhode Island is not in the map. But as you can see, Texas and California are nestled underneath Canada. The Southern states are North of the Northern states. Hawaii is… uh, where is Hawaii? Hawaii’s where we are…somewhere. Illinois…“Illinoy,” Washington. And there’s also a reference to the little village that she came from in Russia called Lenin. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, are all in there. And going through the center of the map of this egg-shaped United States, was a phrase saying “Sorry the rest unknown Thank you,” which in her language was, “Sorry, the rest unknown. I couldn’t care less what you think.”
And that is the person that I grew up with. And that is the lesson that I learned about life and about work. It’s not about getting it right, it’s just about getting it. It’s not about working towards a specific, correct goal, it’s just about working. And the point is to continue to work through all the obstacles that come your way.
So congratulations on doing things. Congratulations on making mistakes. Congratulations on paying back any money you have borrowed from friends in the last four years. And I think you should do it today. Go forth with kindness, meanness, courage, fear, compassion. Go forth with knowing and having no idea, and knowing that having no idea is completely acceptable and real. Commence with confusion. Commenced with a sense of humor. Walk. Breathe. Retreat. Commence with an idea. Sketch it with a pencil. Crumple the paper. Start again. Retreat. Despair. Commence, this time for real.
I could end with, “Sorry the rest unknown Thank you.” And I will, but often this unknown can bring profound joy and produce great work, and it’ll be amazing to see what you do. Thank you very much.
"Sorry, the Rest Unknown" by Maira for The New York Times