Sing Your Song! Shed That Skin! Commencement Addresses With a Similar Difference – Patrick Lane and Amber Tamblyn

Patrick Lane Reading From His Latest Book - Washita

Canadian Poet Patrick Lane

When I think back on commencement addresses I have sat through I think of shiny, successful speakers urging the grads on to scale great heights and capture their dreams. After all it’s the grads big day. Why mention the worms-under-the-rock moments that might (will) happen in their lives. What to do with those bad dreams?

This past January at Vancouver Island University I listened to Canadian poet and teacher Patrick Lane  describe his first sober Christmas in years standing around a Christmas tree at a drug and alcohol recovery center. Nothing shiny about that! For the transcript of Patrick Lane’s commencement address click here. For the video of his address click here. (Scroll down to second video.)

Then, when I was looking for material on American poet and actress Amber Tamblyn a few weeks ago before posting this blog post on her I came across her equally gritty description in a 2014 commencement address of how, after years of success at age twenty eight, she crashed and burned. Not pretty. For the transcript of Tamblyn’s commencement address to Chapman University in 2014 click here.

But, and this is the wonderful paradox!, these speeches were inspiring. Better still, they were real and spoke of heard-earned hope! Not tinsel dreams but hard-paved cracked sidewalks they managed to pick themselves up from, and more than that, to keep on walking  and find new paths to success with integrity.

Here’s how Lane began his talk:

On an early morning just before Christmas back in 2000 I walked across a parking lot at an addiction treatment centre here in Nanaimo not far from this University, stopped, looked up at the the last stars and said, “I quit.” At that moment I began a new life, leaving behind me fifty years of alcohol and drugs. I was then and still am an alcoholic even though I haven’t had a drink these past sixteen years. A month after I was released I wrote a brief afterword to a collection of essays on addiction. It describes a few moments by a Christmas tree one December night at the treatment centre. I read the piece to you now because the girl I describe at the end of the essay died six months later of an overdose, her body found in a shabby room in East End Vancouver:

“The world calls us drunks and addicts. The doctors call us chemically dependent. The counsellors tell us we have a disease. What we call ourselves is mostly unspeakable. The woman next to me, a sweet nineteen-year-old, is an anorexic heroin addict who has been hooking on the street since she was thirteen. Beside her is a young man who started dealing crack cocaine and amphetamines in grade eight to pay for his habit. He was on the street a few years later, selling his body for a hundred or fifty or sometimes twenty quick bucks and beaten too a hundred times in rooms and alleys.

To say this was not what the grads or their pride-bursting parents were expecting might be an understatement! But how real these comments make what he said at the end:

What I have given you is a story from my life for where else but from a life can a story come? And what has this to do with a day of celebration, a day when you receive your degrees after years of hard work? What I promise you is that a day or night will come when you will be faced with a struggle for your life. It can be a struggle much like my own or it can take a different form. What matters is that it will come and when it does you will have to make a choice between a life and a death, your own or another’s. What I want to ask of you is courage. I want you to act upon the humility and compassion you share with all living things, whether it be for a refugee child drowning off the coast of Lesbos in Greece, or a grizzly bear having its head and paws chopped off with an axe by a trophy hunter in the Great Bear Rainforest. 

No matter the honours you have earned and the knowledge you have accumulated, a day will come when much will be asked of you and when it does I want you to believe in yourselves, to believe in each other. You are a generation who have earned your chance at a new life in a damaged world. Today you receive your degrees. It is a moment of immense change for each of you, a moment to be proud of, for your families to be proud of. But today is merely an hour. I ask that you never be afraid for a time may come when you will have to sing your hearts out, and when that happens I want you to sing as hard as you can. 

What a strong last line: I want you to sing as hard as you can! Singing the song of ourselves. Yes. This is the singing Lane writes about in a poem where he says: and still we sing; it’s the singing the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet sings of in a poem: I no longer want to listen -/ I want to sing the songs; and its the singing American poet Greg Orr writes about: The Books says everything perishes./ The book said: That’s why we sing.

American Actress and Poet, Amber Tamblyn in 2015. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mario

American Actress and Poet, Amber Tamblyn in 2015. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Mario

Tamblyn’s address was no less sobering! She describes her descent into her dark night, which included a lot of drinking, and which she said began after she began to write and research poems on dead actresses in Hollywood:

Three years into writing these poems, I had to take a break for health reasons. Mental health. Needless to say, writing about my dead peers of yore was getting to me. I was getting to me. I started to see a change in myself I didn’t like. A change I couldn’t control. I started not to care. About pretty much everything. The things I used to do so well, and so naturally, were fading.

At this point in my life, I couldn’t get a job, I couldn’t finish my book about the dead actresses, I couldn’t stop drinking, and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I didn’t even know I was in a tunnel. My agency of 15 years dropped me as a client. My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. My mother had 7 generations of family heirlooms stolen from her house. I got adult chicken pox. Everything seemed to be happening to me, and I didn’t seem to be happening to anything.

Then Tamblyn gets up close and very personal:

I want to close by saying what you probably don’t want to hear: Some form of this experience I’ve shared with you today will happen to you. It might be next Thursday; it might be when you’re 80. I want to say, simply, that it’s going to be okay. That when you start to panic, and feel like you want to throw a thousand teacups against a wall, shed that skin. When you want to run away from it all, shed that skin. When you want to float in your own darkness until you feel you might drown, shed that skin. When you want to turn your world upside down and see what falls out of it, shed that skin. When you want to tell someone “no” but haven’t figured out how to yet, shed that skin. When it’s time to enforce boundaries between you and the “you” that thinks you’re not good enough, shed that skin. When you want to wear fluorescent pink hot pants to the mall because, look at you, you’re amazing! Shed that skin that prevents you from wearing that skin. Have that revelation, and then have it again, and again, and again.

Know that you are not alone. Somewhere, someday, someone else will be riding the change with you. Maybe it’ll even be me. Maybe it’s everyone you’ve ever loved. Maybe it’s everyone you’ll never meet. No matter what, you will come out stronger then you ever thought possible. Your growth—your survival—will be the most beautiful accomplishment of them all.

I am no where near the age I was when I graduated more than forty five years ago. I wish at my grad ceremony I had been given theses doses of advice. Advice that might have helped, when I encountered the truth of what they shared, in the years after I graduated. Lots of midnight singing; lots of shedding skin! Thank you Patrick Lane and Amber Tamblyn.

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