Commencement address (as prepared for delivery) by Carrie Newcomer ’80, at the 118th Goshen College Commencement on Sunday, April 24, 2016. Copyright Carrie Newcomer.
- Commencement story: “Carrie Newcomer encourages graduates to ‘be true, be kind and pay attention’ with words and song”
- Commencement photo album
- Baccalaureate sermon by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president (full text)
Good afternoon, it is a pleasure and honor to be a part of the graduation ceremony of the Goshen College Class of 2016. Thank you, President Jim Brenneman, and the selection committee for the opportunity to speak with you today. As a Goshen College alumna myself, it has been good to have the chance to reflect upon my own time here on this campus, and the powerful ways it changed me. Which included experiencing a wider and more diverse world during my Study-Service Term, learning how to fire raku pottery, travel with a theater troupe, and how to clean six gallons of mash potatoes off the cafeteria kitchen walls after I pushed the wrong button on the industrial mixer. I admit I was little surprised when I received the invitation to speak to you today. My life work as a traveling musician and songwriter of hard-to-categorize-spiritual-but-not-religious-music did not show up on the chalkboard as one of the top ten professions on jr. high school career day – and it wasn’t something that seemed likely to lead me here today. And so, because my vocational path has been a little unusual, the question I’ve been asking myself in preparation for today was “What can I offer to a roomful of new graduates who are heading out in so many different directions?” and “What is it about my own story that might be of use or service to you?”
Full disclosure, I can’t even count the number of performances and public speaking events I’ve done in the past 30 years. But, this is my first commencement address. I’ve written hundreds of songs and poems, but I’d never written a commencement address. So what did I do? I did what many of us do when we feel at a loss or unsure about some new task. I Googled it. You know, “How to write an effective commencement speech.” There were all these sites that outlined inspirational topics and important messages for new graduates, like “Follow your Dreams” and “Don’t Be Afraid to Fail” and “Take Risks and Embrace Change.” There were Amazon links to whole books on commencement speaking, and PDFs of brilliant speeches by famous people like John F. Kennedy, Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou and the Dalai Lama. I clicked around for a while, but pretty quickly I stopped. I stopped because I realized that I didn’t want to talk to you about big concepts or abstract ideas. I wanted to focus on small things, human-size ideas that have made a real difference in my life and work, that may be of use to you as well. So here it is, three things that have become important practices and practical guides. “Be true. Be kind. And pay attention.” These three things do overlap a bit, but I’ll start with “be true.”
So, what do I mean when I say “be true”? I believe we are all born with affinities, things that we lean into and love just because we do. Two children are born into the same family and they are night and day. How many people here have a sibling? Yes, and they are just like you. No, any parent will tell you that each child is their own little person from the moment they are born. I first encountered this idea in Parker J. Palmer’s beautiful book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which I recommend for anyone, but especially for you at this point in your life. Think about it. There are activities that have always made you lose track of time. Can you remember the things you loved to do as a child? For some folks, it was the elegance of mathematics, for others it was practicing free throws, or LEGOs or team sports. For some of us it was reading everything you could get your hands on about bugs or horses or the stars. For some of us it was endlessly putting band-aids on their dolls or doing dental work on their bears. Think about it, doesn’t it just make you happy to remember those things? When I was a kid my favorite game was called, “makin’ somethin’ ” “What are you doing Carrie?” “Makin’ somethin’.” I was making little songs and stories. I was drawing pictures and making stuff out of paper and glue, leftover fabric or clay. And all these years later, I’m still so happy when I’m makin’ something; a song, a story, pumpkin biscuits for my dog, making something, creating something new. There’s a clue in these things we naturally love. Sometimes the correlation is pretty direct. My older sister played school every day of her young life, and she’s been one of the most passionate educators I’ve ever known. But sometimes the correlation is poetic. My friend Chris once told me that he really really loved his job, but that his work had no relationship to what he loved to do as a kid. I asked him what he loved to do as a kid and he described how his family owned a back forty section of woods behind his house. He would spend everyday all summer creating winding paths through those woods. He’d make little signs so that people wouldn’t lose their way. He even created rest stops so a traveler could take a break to sit and think. I said, “Chris, you’re a pastor and vocational reflection counselor—you’re still helping people find their way through the woods.” He just smiled and said, “Huh. I guess so.” You see, we can learn to do a lot of things well, we are human beings with opposable thumbs. But, I believe the closer we get to what we love by nature, when we operate from our truest heart, the more potent our work AND our lives become.
But being true is not a destination you arrive at and stop. Being true is an unfolding process, you keep checking in with your heart to see if your inner life is in harmony with your outer circumstances. I know, I know, you’re thinking – but how does this all work, and what does this process look like?” For me, it looked like my own father, a man of deep integrity, who chose to stay true many times in the course of his career and life as an educator, sometimes at a great personal and professional cost. He could not say what he did not believe. He would not stay silent if the truth needed to be spoken. He could not be someone that he was not. My father’s example inspired me to not become just another good singer-songwriter, but instead, to become the only Carrie Newcomer, and the truest Carrie Newcomer I could be. One of my own “being true” stories happened to me at about your age. I did not go to college for music. I think when I began college I wasn’t ready to risk what I loved the most. I think sometimes we have to get ready to risk what we love, because if it doesn’t work out, it will actually mean something. I got a fall-back degree in work I enjoyed a lot, visual art. Ok, that tells you a lot about me when my safe and secure fall back plan was visual art. Yes, safe and secure. Visual art, check. Folk singing, check. Eventually I did get a teacher’s license so I could teach visual art. But, all through school I was writing songs, and even though I was pretty shy, I began to play music in restaurants and coffeehouses, bars and bowling alleys. I played everywhere, weddings, bat mitzvahs, grocery store openings, I think I even played a few garage sales. And when I graduated from college, music was calling me, songwriting was for me what Parker J. Palmer calls “the thing I could not, not do.” I had no idea what it would look like. I just knew I had to follow. I had to be true. And after all this time, I’m still following. And, I’m still checking in with my truest heart, and listening closely to what it has to say. I’m still refining my life and work, because of what my true heart tells me. You also have a true heart and a true guide. Breathe deep, and take time to listen – your true heart can be trusted. Keep asking, “How can I bring more of who I am and what I love into my daily life?”
On the way to finding and honoring your truest self, you can be guided by another simple but important practice. Be kind. In your life after Goshen College you will decide not just what you want to “do” in the world, but who you want to “be.” You will “do” many things and most likely work a variety of jobs. But in every circumstance, you will choose what kind of spirit you bring to your life and to your work. We talk a lot about love. We talk about love in songs, movies, in spiritual community. Love is big, it’s so big and so wide. Sometimes you just can’t get your arms around love. But kindness is love in human size. It’s the country cousin to love. Kindness brings soup when you’re sick, it hangs out in the kitchen washing dishes when no one asked it to, it opens the door when your hands are full, and stops everything to listen to your story. It is not flashy or fancy or likely to make it to the front page. It’s a small practice and so humble, it’s easy to forget how profoundly powerful it is. Kindness lightens and softens our days. It reframes the world and expresses love on a human scale This does not mean I’ve always lived and worked in situations of goodness and light. I had to learn how to navigate in a tough business, particularly for women. But, I made a choice about the kind of spirit that would ground my life and work. Greg Ellison wrote, “ I can’t change the world, but I can change what is three feet around me.” Think about that – no, I can’t change the whole world, but I can make a profound difference by choosing what I bring into my daily sphere of influence. I fell in love with my husband, Robert, for many reasons. He’s a brilliant man, creative, honest, funny and passionate about his work and activism. And, he’s the most kind-hearted man I’ve ever met. He’s an entertainment lawyer and if there was ever a profession that encouraged being the tough guy, well, that would be law. But, Robert’s approach is fair and respectful. He understands that his clients are sometimes in confusing or anxiety-ridden situations. He’s good at what he does, and he gets to “yes” but without the hard edge – and generally, everyone feels better at the end of the process. He honors his own kind heart, and in doing that he shifts something with his every interaction. Think back … remember some small act of kindness extended to you, a kindness that changed something, a kindness you remember to this very day.
When I was a little girl, I went to visit my grandmother Newcomer. Her yard looked like the Garden of Eden and she had planted flowers all round her front porch. I loved my grandmother, and I decided to pick her a bouquet. I remember my mother’s horrified face as I held out that bouquet of flowers, bulbs and all. My grandmother did not skip a beat. She just said, “Oh Carrie, what a beautiful bouquet. Thank you. And now, I will teach you how to plant bulbs.” Which she did. She did not yell at me, or shame me. She took me by the hand and taught me something very important about how to tend to growing things- like flowers, like relationships, like a child. And to this day, whenever I get my hands in the dirt, whenever I put a bouquet of flowers on the front table, I think of her and that small kindness. The practice of kindness is transformative, and the spirit we chose to bring to our lives and work matters.
The practice of being kind also extends to myself. At 21 years old, I was like many of you here today. I was wise and foolish and beautiful and lost and filled with such good intentions. I was shining. But I did not know it. My time at Goshen College was filled with classes and conversations about what it really meant to live a life of justice and compassion. I believed in the dignity and worth of others, but I did yet believe in the depth of my own worthiness. Thomas Merton said, “It cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” I wish someone could have told me, “You’re alright, – you’re more than all right – you are shining like the sun.” But, I would have to claim that for myself, as you will have to claim that for yourself. Try whenever you can, to give yourself the same kindness and encouragement you would give a good friend. The practice of kindness is transformative – in our daily interactions with others, but also in how befriend ourselves.
A key companion to being true, and being kind is the practice of paying attention. Practice. I love the word “practice,” because practice does not imply perfection, it implies intention. I want to be here. I want to show up for my own life. And so I keep practicing. I tell my songwriting students that to write a good story or song you have to be present and pay attention. You can’t write a story if you’ve missed what happened because you were checking your texts. We live in a world of distraction and it’s easy, so easy to not be present in our own lives. You have to choose to be present and to notice things. The saddest days of my life are the ones where I get to the end and say, “Dang, I missed it.” But be aware that if you are paying attention you’ll see things. It’s like you make this deal with the universe. I will be here and I will be present. And because of that you will be a different kind of person. You’ll probably gasp at sunsets more often. You might weep at a song or sense something extraordinary in what appears to be absolutely ordinary. You might find yourself standing in the middle of the room grinning at something that no one else saw. You’ll become the person in the airport who has an invisible sign on your forehead saying “I love a good story” and people will sense this and sit next to you and tell you all kinds of marvelous things. When you are paying attention you will see things, and because of that, you will encounter the good questions. Take notice of these questions, pay attention to the ones that continue to intrigue you, the questions that return, “What do I love beyond words or measure? What sustains me? What does it mean to be true? And when I pull back all the distractions of my life, what is at its very heart? It is good to have goals and work toward them, but our lives happen here and now. Stay present, take notice and keep asking good questions. I chose to follow music because I was paying attention to what my heart was telling me. What is your heart telling you? I write better songs because I keep showing up. What might you take to a new level if you set an intention to be more present in your own life?
So that’s it, three simple human sized ideas. Be true, be kind, pay attention. Be true, keep checking in with your heart, which is going to take courage at times. Be kind to yourself and to one another. Kindness is love on a human scale. And take notice of how a little kindness can tip the balance toward the light. And finally, pay attention. Be here and aware. This world is a surprising, startling, beautiful place. Don’t get to the end of your day, or week, or life and say, “Dang, I missed it.” Pay attention to what you love, because love will always take you where you need to go, which is rarely where you expected, but it will be where you need to go.
Thank you for listening to me today. My dear graduates of 2016, you are the glorious next wave. You are shining like the sun. May you know the perfect danger of a beautiful life well lived.
Be True, Be Kind and Pay Attention.