Today, I decided to introduce you to another one of my favorite writers — Anna Quindlen. My history with Anna goes back to the late 80s. I loved her op-ed columns in the New York Times and read each of her books as soon as they came out. The highlight for me, though, was a talk she gave in San Francisco at City Arts and Lectures where my friend Jane (another avid fan) and I learned a new and fabulous word to add to our vocabulary, “inculcate.”
Anna is a true liberal in every sense of the word, but she has a remarkable ability to write in such a convincing and open-minded way that my mother, a semi-conservative, found her enlightening. But even more surprising — despite their polar opposite views, Anna and Justice Antonin Scalia had a mutual appreciation for each other…now that is astounding!
In 2000, she was invited to give the commencement address at Villanova, but a few conservative students protested due to her liberalism, and instead of ruining the graduation ceremony, Anna pulled out. She did, though, send her speech to the students.
Years before social media could make a star out of a chicken, her speech spread like wildfire across the internet. A few months later, Anna expanded it into the short and wonderful book, A Short Guide to a Happy Life. Today, I bring you her abridged commencement address, which is a life lesson that I certainly need to keep in mind, and perhaps, one that resonates with you.
“I’ve never earned a doctorate, or even a master’s degree. I’m not an ethicist, or a philosopher, or an expert in any particular field…I can’t talk about the economy, or the universe, or ‘academe,’ as academicians like to call where they work when they’re feeling kind of grand. I’m a novelist. My work is human nature. Real life is really all I know.
Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for re-election because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: ‘No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.’
Don’t ever forget the words on a postcard that my father sent me last year: ‘If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.’
There are thousands of people out there with the same degree you have; when you get a job, there will be thousands of people doing what you want to do for a living. But you are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Your particular life. Your entire life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on the bus, or in the car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.
People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit. But a résumé is cold comfort on a winter night, or when you’re sad, or broke, or lonely, or when you’ve gotten back the chest X-ray and it doesn’t look so good, or when the doctor writes “prognosis, poor.”
You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.
So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger paycheck, the larger house. Do you think you’d care so very much about those things if you developed an aneurysm one afternoon, or found a lump in your breast while in the shower?
Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your regular phone, for that matter. Keep still. Be present.
Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.
Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at a full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.
All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good too, then doing well will never be enough.
It’s ironic that we forget so often how wonderful life really is. We have more time than ever before to remember it. The men and women of generations past had to work long, long hours to support lots and lots of children in tiny, tiny houses. The women worked in factories and sweatshops and then at home, too, with two bosses, the one who paid them, and the one they were married to, who didn’t. Our jobs take too much out of us and don’t pay enough.
Life is made up of moments, small pieces of glittering mica in a long stretch of gray cement. It would be wonderful if they came to us unsummoned, but particularly in lives as busy as the ones most of us lead now, that won’t happen. We have to teach ourselves how to make room for them, to love them, and to live, really live.
This is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.
Consider the lilies of the field. Look at the fuzz on a baby’s ear. Read in the backyard with the sun on your face. Learn to be happy. And think of life as a terminal illness, because, if you do, you will live it with joy and passion, as it ought to be lived.”
And to that, I say, “Amen!”
TIME TO DINE: Cooking for Joan
My nephew, Ben, and his wife, Kim, are celebrating their 2nd wedding anniversary this week. Their wedding in a word was "splendiferous!" It was a beautiful black-tie event on the manicured grounds of a mansion overlooking the Hudson River. Despite the family ties, I can honestly say it was the best wedding I've ever attended.
Now, flashback three months to Kim's bridal shower at Lisa's house — my sister and Ben's mom. I was asked to put my bartender skills to use, so I created two signature cocktails for the occasion. (I'm pretty sure that bartending was the only way I could finagle an invite!) I called the first cocktail a Sweet-Tart, which was a concoction with champagne, passion-fruit puree, and a splash of grenadine. The other was a Pear Martini, which was a huge hit with the ladies. So, in honor of Ben and Kim's 2nd Anniversary, my recipe of the week is the Pear Martini!
- 3 ounces pear vodka
- 1 ounces St-Germain
- 1 ounce lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 1 ounce apple juice
- splash of Prosecco
- Pear, sliced
Shake all of the ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with a slice of pear. (Depending on how sweet or tart you like your cocktail, adjust the ingredient ratio.)
**Watercolor image by Alessandro Serra from The River.