Keep the Channel Open
by Gretchen Cryer
May 22, 2006
First let me say that it is a heady experience to be standing here at 6,000 feet above sea level to deliver a commencement address to people who have spent four years living in the rarefied atmosphere of Colorado College. I know of no other college where students relax from their intellectual pursuits by practicing walking the tightrope, scaling a bare-faced precipice a thousand feet in the air, or running up Pikes Peak for an afternoon jaunt. I admire the adventurous spirit — physical and intellectual — of you who attend this college, and I am encouraged that the world is going to be a much better place once you are launched out there making your contributions. Maybe it’s the fact that you wake up every morning with Pikes Peak over your shoulder, with all that it symbolizes — majesty, challenge, danger, possibilities, mystery, beauty — or perhaps it’s because you have a world-class president and faculty. Whatever the reason, somehow there has been a beautiful confluence of elements here that make Colorado College an exciting place to be.
I am thrilled to be here, also astonished and terrified that someone decided that I might have words of wisdom to impart that would help launch this senior class out into the world. For someone who feels she still doesn’t hold the answer to any of the larger questions in life, this is an extremely daunting position to be in. So right up front I want to say that I’m not going to attempt to wrestle with any of the larger questions in life, like: “What is existence?” or “What is reality?” or “What is consciousness?”. . I will simply start with a common consensus: we exist, the reality is you guys are about to graduate, and we are all conscious and will remain so if I don’t go on too long.
Actually, I am here because of a strange set of circumstances that were set in motion 25 years ago on a barrier reef outside New York City. A small blond four-year-old boy, a stranger to me, knocked on the door of my beach cottage one morning, a little red bucket in his hand, announced that his name was Stephen, and invited me to go pick blueberries with him. His powers of persuasion were intense, it was the best offer I’d had all week, and so at 7 a.m. I found myself deep in the bushes picking blueberries with a winsome complete stranger. By 8 a.m., our mouths stained purple from the blueberries that never made it into the bucket, it was clear that in spite of our 40-year difference in ages, Stephen and I were kindred spirits. On subsequent days I received other invitations. Stephen would show up every morning radiant with his new plans: Would I like to go play ball with him on the beach, build sand castles? Would I like to collect shells on the beach, look for sea glass? Would I ride with him to the store — I on my bicycle and he on his tricycle? And five days into our friendship — would I like to come and meet his dad? . . . I must admit I was curious, thinking “Who in the world could have spawned this extraordinarily charming, intelligent, eccentric little boy?” So I followed Stephen down the path to another beach house, where he called out to his father, “Dad, I brought Gretchen!” A very large man emerged from the beach house, came toward me smiling, and extended his hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you from Stephen. I’m Dick Celeste.”
Which all goes to show that if you heed your instincts and follow your heart and go blueberry picking on a summer morning with a four-year-old perfect stranger, 25 years later you may find yourself receiving an honorary degree and delivering a commencement address to an extraordinary group of people.
And you are an extraordinary group of people, born into a very exciting, terrifying time in the history of the planet. It’s an important time to be alive — a time when individual actions can have far-reaching consequences, a time when individuals can make a difference — for the good, or for the bad. Our technologies have reached such a point in empowering us that an individual person can press a button and change the course of history. It only took 19 guys to bring down the World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon. Individuals have never before had the powers that we have today — for good or ill — so it is a time when people of good will and intentions, people who affirm life, MUST step up to the plate. We cannot be isolationists. Isolationism is no longer a possibility or an option. We’re at the tipping point in human history, a time when our personal decisions about the way we live will determine whether or not we continue to exist. We have been born at a point on the space-time continuum when the planet seems hell-bent on self-destruction and so it is up to us — up to you — to create a new paradigm. We have to think in new ways to turn this thing around. And I know of no better group of people to do groundbreaking, transformational thinking than you here today. In the three years that I have been fortunate enough to be asked to teach here I have been impressed with the vitality and originality of the students and the infinite potential among you. In my brief stints here, 3 and 1/2 weeks each, I have known maybe 30 or 40 of you — a mere sampling — and I have been amazed at transformations in my writing classes that I have seen. Students have found their own voices, have given expression to their own stories, have been willing to share those stories, and have had the courage to come from their own authentic points of view, to let us see through their windows on the world. I have glimpsed the potential for original thought here, authentic expression, and it is awesome. You are risk-takers, you are adventurers, you can climb right up the face of sheer rock and somehow find a hand-hold in a seemingly impenetrable surface, you have the endurance to run to a summit 14,000 feet in the air and come back down and discuss Proust after lunch. You are the hope of the future and we need you.
Well, what is it exactly that we need you to do, now that I have charged you with the grandiose task of saving the world? In the midst of thousands of possible career choices, thousands of possible scenarios for your lives, do I have some basic advice here? Well, yes. It has to do with a way of being that transcends all career choices. I think this is a time when we must all live as ARTISTS — in the broadest sense. Artists are people who start with nothing — a blank page, an empty space devoid of movement, an empty canvas, silence — where a melody, a chord progression, rhythms are as yet unexpressed. It’s a point when there is only the unarticulated urge. And there, at that point of verdant nothingness where all is infinite possibility, artists reach inside themselves and come up with something new. They allow the life force to come through them and find unique expression.
My own passion in life has found expression in the arts (mostly in the theater, writing and performing — a tiny tiny corner of artistic endeavor) and it is out of my experience in that world that I am speaking today. My life in the arts has been a life of insecurity, not knowing where your next job or project will be coming from, having to create your own next job or project — a rollercoaster life of incredible highs and lows, a life not of material wealth but the riches that come from doing something that you love. That’s where I’m coming from. I know that most of you out there are probably not planning to choose a profession in the arts, but I want to talk to you about living as an artist no matter what your profession — whether you choose to be a bioengineer, a homemaker, a dancer, an orthodontist, an astrophysicist, a shoemaker, a senator, or a horse trainer.
Being an artist in life means coming from your authentic self and being open to the urges that motivate you and allowing them to find expression through you.
Albert Einstein said that when he first conceived the theory of relativity it came to him as a feeling in his chest. Just a feeling in his chest. An unarticulated urge. He didn’t know what it was. It had no form yet. And then after a while it surfaced and he was able to translate that feeling into mathematical terms next, and then finally into words. And it was a new idea. It came through him. He was an artist.
I want to share with you a quote from Martha Graham. As you know she was a pioneer in the dance world, someone who broke all tradition and came up with a whole new conception of dance — the relationship of the body to the earth — that was a radical departure from classical ballet. And she was a thinker as well as a dancer. This is a famous quote that you no doubt have heard before. It is one that I keep on my desk and I read almost daily because I think it is so important:
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
In other words, you are unique and your circumstances are unique, your point of view is unique. And if you block the life force that is coming through you, its expression is forever lost to the world, to the human project. I love the idea that the life force comes through you, that you are a channel for new ideas, new creations, new paradigms, because it exactly reflects my own experience as a writer. It’s a very mysterious process, this matter of letting things come through you, sort of mystical and magical. Sometimes when we are creating — when the life force is coming through us — we surprise ourselves. We didn’t see it coming and we don’t know where it came from. The last play I wrote was such an experience: I had vague stirrings about what I wanted to write about, I knew who my characters were and I knew the situation I had put them in, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what they were going to do, how it was going to turn out. Every day when I got up to write I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. My characters took on a life of their own and played out their drama. I felt sort of like a stenographer, just taking down what they were saying: I was just along for the ride, and I was amazed at how it turned out.
Sometimes when I look back at things I have written in the past I think, “Did I write that? Where did that come from? Of course, there are times when I look back at old scribblings I find at the bottom of a pile and I think, “God, did I write that?!! What was I thinking?! . . .”
Now, lest I start sounding simple-minded about this channeling stuff, I don’t want to give you the impression that I think it’s just a matter of sitting down one day with a feeling in your chest and out comes the theory of relativity or “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” No, this instrument which gives expression to the life force — your body and mind, your being — has to be prepared. Martha Graham says it takes about 10 years to make a mature dancer. Again I want to quote her:
“The training is two-fold. There is the study and practice of the craft in order to strengthen the muscular structure of the body. The body is shaped, disciplined, honored, and, in time, trusted. . . Then there is the cultivation of the being. It is through this that the legends of the soul’s journey are re-told with all their gaiety and their tragedy and the bitterness and sweetness of living.” The cultivation of your craft is what you’ve been doing here at Colorado College and may continue beyond. We all know what the cultivation of your craft entails. Practice, practice, practice. Again from Martha Graham: “it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical and intellectual, from which comes the shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.”
So let’s assume you have prepared, that you have learned your craft, you have it in your bones, you are an athlete of God. How do you keep the channel open so that new ideas can come through you, so that you can make your contribution?
Well, first of all you need to be operating from your authentic self — not somebody else’s idea of who you should be. Not your parents’ idea, not society’s idea, not some media-created fantasy of who you should be. You need to understand that you have a right to be who you really are, with all your strengths and foibles. You have to own your own existence, your identity. Sometimes it’s really hard to be your authentic self in the face of the expectations of others. You hate to disappoint; the pressure is great. But what the world needs is you. The real you.
And the courage to be the real you means you have to own not only the equipment you were born with, but the circumstances of your life as well. Life throws everybody a lot of curves, but those circumstances become part of who you are, where you’re coming from, what you know about. They are part of the unique definition of you. Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio in his mid-30s just as his political star was beginning to rise. He was paralyzed from the waist down, was pretty much confined to a wheelchair, could stand only with the help of steel braces on his legs and someone at his side. Still, 12 years later he was elected president of the United States to an unprecedented four terms, wherein he pulled the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War — exhibiting all the while an amazing joie de vivre and a compassion for the downtrodden that was no doubt informed by his own condition. He embraced his circumstances. More recently, Christopher Reeve, paralyzed from the neck down by a spinal-cord injury, embraced his circumstances and became a driving force in research to heal spinal-cord injury, far eclipsing his career as a movie star. These examples are extreme, but the point is, you take what you’ve got and give it your best shot. You don’t let your circumstances block the channel. Your circumstances and how you deal with them — that’s part of who you are.
And then, when you’re coming from your authentic self, giving expression to the urges that motivate you, doing your thing, you must not divert your energy by judging yourself or judging the worth of your contribution — comparing the worth of your contribution to others’ contribution. If you start judging your effort while you’re in the process of doing it, that will block your channel for sure. In my writing class — Creating your Own Solo Performance — I tell my students to reach down into themselves, to write out of what they know, and to pull out moments that are vivid and alive to them, putting themselves back into that moment and writing in the present tense from the immediacy of that moment. But most importantly, I tell them not to censor themselves or judge themselves while they are doing it. They must not block themselves while they are doing it. They must not be looking over their own shoulder. After they’ve got it down, then they can go back and change and delete, but not while they are in the process of getting it down. You have to commit yourself to the activity at hand, stay in the moment, stay with the impulse or it will be lost. That’s why I tell writers to carry a little notebook around at all times. You may have a sudden gestalt, a sudden impulse, a moment of clarity, a blinding flash of insight, a moment when you suddenly know what you want to do or how to do it, and you have to be able to get it down. Sometimes ideas percolate for weeks, months, years, and then suddenly everything falls into place and you know how to give expression to these heretofore-unformed ideas, these nascent stirrings. Suddenly, it all comes together and you need to be able to seize the thing, get it down.
And to keep the channel open you have to do things full-out. You have to go for it — in life as in art. Again I’ll use a dance image: If you’re going to do a tour jete, you have to do it full-out. You cannot sort of do a tour jete or it’s not a tour jete. Sometimes when we are afraid to fail, we protect ourselves by not giving full effort, whatever it is we’re doing. We figure that we don’t want to look like we really want something, so we’ll just sort of do it. We’ll remain hip and cool and look like we don’t care. Well, that’s just like the sort-of tour jete. Whatever it is that you’re just sort of trying to do is just not going to happen. For sure. Sort of doing something is self-sabotage of the grand order.
Now of course when you are learning your craft, or when you’re trying something new, your expressions may be awkward, ungainly. You may fall on your face. You may look foolish, you may sound awful. And you have to be willing to do that. In order to keep the channel open and keep the flow going, you have to take risks, be willing to fail. Fall down six times, get up seven. It’s part of the process. And the more you fall down and then get up, the more you will have confidence that you can do that — take a risk, fall down, and then get up, and you’ll be okay.
And while you’re falling down and getting up, lest you be discouraged and shut down the channel, you have to be aware of your own rhythms — the ebb and flow of creativity that are also part of the natural process. When you are wrestling with an idea, things come in fits and starts. It’s not all smooth sailing. Sometimes when you feel most blocked, that is the time before the big breakthrough. I have found in my own work when I have hit the wall, when I feel utterly uninspired, when nothing at all is coming, when it feels really bad and I am wondering why in the world I ever thought I was a writer — that’s good! That means something is about to break. Something’s coming through. And it usually does. So you must not despair if you reach an impasse. Let it be. Back off, clear your mind, go practice your tight-rope, hum a tune, take a bath. And suddenly, when you least expect it, the solution will appear — the gestalt, a new way of seeing things. And you better have your notebook with you.
And finally, and probably most importantly, you have to love what you do or your discontent will clog the channel and prevent the life force from flowing through you just as surely as the build-up of plaque in your arteries will impede the flow of your life’s blood. We all know what it is to be around someone who is doing his or her right work. The love and passion they have for what they are doing is palpable, and it manifests in matters large and small. The passion itself is contagious: it lifts the spirits and inspires everyone who witnesses it, encouraging and empowering them to do their own right work in matters large and small. The other day I passed a fire hydrant on the streets in upper Manhattan that had been meticulously painted by someone in shades of red and bronze and aubergine! It was a work of art and it took my breath away! It wasn’t cute and it wasn’t kitschy. It was just the handsomest fire hydrant I had ever seen. Somebody really cared! And I felt inspired.
Recently I saw the new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Of course I was in awe of the fact that all ten actors in the production not only acted and sang an incredibly difficult score, but they were also the orchestra, each playing one or more instruments on stage as they enacted the piece. A stunning tour de force. But the main thing that communicated itself to me — the thing I came away with — was the feeling that Stephen Sondheim loves what he is doing. Behind that dark piece of work is the smile of someone who is at the top of his game and loving it.
I saw Buckminster Fuller when he was well into his 80s, delivering a lecture shortly before he died. One would have never known that he was going to die soon. He burst onto the stage, talking a mile a minute, so excited about the concepts he was sharing with us that he could hardly contain himself. He spoke so fast I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying, but it didn’t matter. I knew I could go home and read one of his books. The important thing for me was his passion. I was inspired being in the presence of someone who loved his work so much, who was excited by the ideas that had come through him. It made me want to go home and write a play.
You see, when you are coming from your authentic self and doing work that you love — no matter what it is — there is a ripple effect. It is contagious, empowering other people to do the same. So as you look out onto the world, do not discount or devalue your own efforts if they seem not to be addressing directly the ills of the world in an important way. You may not be the one who finds the cure for cancer, solves the problems of global warming, charts a new political direction for this country. Yes, you might be that person, but if you are not, that’s all right. You must simply do what you love, do your right work and do it well, keep the channel open and find your own authentic mode of expression, and your passion will communicate itself to other people and inspire them to do the same, and their passion will inspire someone else who inspires someone else, and that may turn out to be the person who finds the cure for cancer, solves the problems of global warming, or charts a new direction for this country. The ripple effect is exponential. We’re all in this together.
So as you step out into the world today I urge you all to live as artists — no matter what your profession — first honing your craft, then coming from your own authentic point of view fearlessly, with joy and passion, taking risks and letting the life force come through you. Keep the channel open. And may you all be athletes of God.