Jessica Lange's Commencement Address
President LeBlanc, board of trustees, faculty, students, staff, families and friends. I wish to thank you for the privilege of being here with you today and addressing you on this wonderful occasion. I am touched and grateful to receive this honorary degree.
We came together today to celebrate your commencement and to mark the beginning of a new phase of your lives. One definition of the word commence is, "to come into being." And, in a sense, that is what is happening to you.
I suppose, what makes most beginnings so thrilling is the embarkation into the unknown. Even though we might have made elaborate preparations, intense studies, lain awake at night picturing the details of our future - there is no way we can ever know how things are going to turn out. It may be that this initial confrontation with the unknown is what sets the stage for our entire life. What I become may in large part, depend more on my encounter with what I don't know than on all the knowledge and studies I have accumulated. You should feel very proud. You should congratulate yourselves for your passion and intelligence and hard work and simultaneously give thanks for your passion and intelligence and hard work and simultaneously give thanks for the extraordinary opportunity that has been yours. How graced, privileged you have been to receive such a wonderful education. In reviewing the plans of the concentration of 2003 commencement, I was impressed by their scope and precision. It brought to mind a William Blake quote, "My fingers emit sparks of fire with expectation of my future labors."
I understand I am speaking to a unique and gifted group of students. I suspect from reading about these plans there are great things in store for you.
Recently I was making a film in Montgomery, Alabama. One night driving home from the set, as we passed one of those ubiquitous strip malls, I noticed a huge banner stretched across a building. It read: "Now open till midnight." It was on a day care center. It made me very sad. Sad for the children in there. Sad for the mother or father who had left them there. And I imagined a mother somewhere working a night shift or possibly working two jobs. Minimum wage jobs. Having to leave her children in the care of others until late into the night - in the care of others for hours everyday. Paying day care costs that eat up her paycheck for the week.
And I thought, there is something terribly wrong with this system. Here we are, in America, with the highest poverty rate for children of all of the major countries - and support systems for women and children that rank below the top ten countries of the world. America, the richest nation on earth.
And then I thought of my daughter and her field of study here. Precisely in this area. So, perhaps someday - because of the work she had the opportunity to do here at Marlboro, she may be able to affect a positive change in the economic and social support for children and their caregivers.
I read about a plan that centered around documentary photography. And, perhaps, that person will, someday, with an image or images increase awareness, reveal a truth, affect public opinion and shift the course of history. Not unlike the photographers, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut or Larry Burroughs, for example, who laid bare the horrors or the Vietnam War and galvanized the people of this country in opposition to that war.
I read about a plan in biology - the field of stem cell biology. An area that could and will affect the lives of millions.
Perhaps one of you will transcend time and place with a painting, sculpture, a piece of music or theatre. A 'Guernica' - Picasso's seminal work of art. An anti-war painting that hangs at the entrance to the U.N. Security Council that was concealed by a large blue drape the day Colin Powell was to give his speech and attempt to seduce the world into bombing Iraq.
Your possibilities are limitless. Whatever field you decide on ultimately, whether it be science, art, education, social reform, economics, you will have the opportunity to make a better world, to benefit humanity, to ease the suffering of others, to heal, to entertain, to educate, to illuminate.
We are all citizens of a troubled world. I am sure Marlboro College is not as idyllic as it appears to a visitor but what you are moving into is bound to be more difficult. I think of the world I inhabited at your age. Most of you I would guess, are about 22 years old. For me, that would have been 1972.
The Vietnam War was in its seventh year. The ruthlessness with which Nixon employed America's huge military might shocked and appalled the world. It was called operation Linebacker I & II. It was round the clock bombing. There was no electricity or water, no services. Thousands were killed in the bomb blasts. The bombing destroyed the infrastructure and the Vietnamese countryside to save it from the communists.
Now at 22, you have just witnessed a new war. This time the bombing operation was called 'shock and awe'. Again thousands were killed, infrastructure and countryside destroyed to save it, in this case from Saddam Hussein. The magnitude of our destructive power once again shocked and appalled the world.
This past December I traveled to Oslo to host the Nobel Peace Prize concert and with artists from around the world to celebrate Jimmy Carter and his work. And of this I am certain. Peace is a far greater force than war. A society that embraces peace, freedom and human rights will be the strongest nation on earth.
As President Carter said that day, "The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of all our fears and prejudices, God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes - and we must."
Please forgive me if I seem to be preaching to the converted. But you are coming of age in a very distressing time in our country and, as a mother; I naturally worry and feel compelled to speak out.
Many of you will be voting for just the first or second time in your life and yet you carry the weight of the future on your shoulders. So I caution you, as a reminder, Iraq has not been the only battleground in recent years.
The areas for concern are many. Women's rights are endangered by a lengthening string of anti-choice executive orders, legislation and judicial appointments that undermine reproductive freedom. Blocking sex education that discusses anything but abstinence. Re-imposing the global 'gag' rule, crippling the international family planning programs worldwide that work to prevent hundreds of thousands of infant and maternal deaths. The freezing of millions of dollars in financing for programs run by the World Health Organization and the U.N. Population Fund.
In the area of education, the No Child Left Behind Act. A law that demands schools have 100% of their children proficient on state tests in the next decade and then provides a fraction of the resources to help the neediest meet those standards.
A sustained war is being waged against the environment. A retreat on the Clean Air Act. Allowing mine waste to be dumped in rivers. Weakening the Clean Water Act. Withdrawal from the Kyoto Treaty. Increased logging in our national forests. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The judiciary. The attempt to turn the federal courts into a reactionary force in society. Making ideology the primary consideration in picking judges.
The endangerment of our civil liberties with the Patriot Act and the 'new and improved' Patriot Act. II. The total Information Awareness Act.
The list goes on and on.
If you are concerned about any or all of these issues - now is the time to be vigilant. Now is the time to act. This is the world you are inheriting. But you have the education, and coupled with compassion you are well prepared to turn the tide and create a better world - to work for peace, for justice and equality. To be good stewards of our precious earth.
So while I am encouraging and challenging you to take up arms, so to speak, to work for the good of common man and commit yourselves to the pursuit of peace - a heavy burden, indeed. I also want to encourage you to just be present and open to the possibilities of letting life take you on an adventure. Don't be rigid in your expectations. Recognize early in life the truth of impermanence. I imagine if I remember correctly, at 22 it is not a reality you live with daily. But everything is transient. Everything is constantly changing. The only thing we really have is now.
There is a Tibetan saying, "Tomorrow or the next life - which comes first, we never know."
So I encourage you, don't wait. Don't keep anticipating that your life is up ahead of you. Don't put all your energies into some idea of the future. This is your life. This moment.
And with that in mind you open the door for endless possibilities. Just allow life to take you on an adventure. Be receptive to the winds of change. Let yourself be taken by the current.
When I entered college it was with the intention and desire to study painting. I enrolled in the fine arts program. I imagined in four years I would have my BFA, a few year after that my MFA. After college I'd have a studio. Be a struggling artist and enter full-time into the world of modern art.
In the second quarter of my freshman year the drawing class I wanted to take was filled. At the last moment I signed up for a photography class. My instructor introduced me to a group of his friends, most of whom were photographers. They were leaving for Europe to make a documentary film about gypsies in the south of Spain - flamenco artists as they traveled the fair circuit through Andalusia. They asked if I wanted to come along - so I went. We lived in Europe for that year and when we returned to the states we settled in NYC, in Soho just when it was becoming the center for the arts. They had a friend - a woman who had danced with Merce Cunningham and was starting an experimental theatre company. She asked me if I wanted to work with them. I said yes. In the course of that work she introduced the company to mime. A man who had worked with the great master Etienne Decroux was in New York and came to give us classes.
I learned that Decroux, now in his eighties still lived and taught in Paris. I decided to go looking for him. I lived the next three years in Paris studying with Decroux. I felt I had finally settled on what my life would be. I never imagined leaving Paris. In the classes I met some actors who were also studying mime. I started working with them on some theatre pieces - acting. On a return visit to the states I ran into one of them who was now studying in N.Y. I went along to see what it was all about and discovered I had an instant passion for it. I decided to stay and study. Suddenly my life was in N.Y. I was living in a fifth floor walk up in the village working as a waitress, taking acting classes. I imagined this would continue for years and slowly I would start auditioning for showcase theatres, Off-Off Broadway. A life in the theatre. Someday, maybe Broadway.
One day I was asked if I wanted to audition for a film. It would mean flying to Hollywood and doing a screen test. It seemed like such a lark, but my sister was sailing up the coast of California and I wanted to hook up with her so I said yes. I figured it was a free trip to Los Angeles. I didn't want to do a film. It wasn't part of the future I imagined at all. So I went to Hollywood, was taken to MGM and did a screen test. They gave me the part and then began a new and totally unexpected chapter in my life.
So, by way of a very long story, the point I want to make is this - there was no way I could have anticipated in those six years that my life would take such twists and turns. At 19 I was a painting student at the University of Minnesota. By 25 I was starring in the most expensive motion picture ever made.
Sometimes you should let life take you on its glorious adventure and the best time to do it is now when you're young. When you're full of energy and curiosity and have no fears.
I would urge you not to put the constraints of success on your expectations. Success will be a by-product of the life you lead. And all success is individual. And, as in my case, sometimes it will be completely accidental.
Now you are setting out on your next adventure. It is important to set aside expectations and limitations. Take the time to examine who you are. Don't let yourselves be dissuaded or discourages but do allow yourselves to be sidetracked. Get off main street. Breath life into everything you do.
The world is waiting for you. You will make it a better place. Embrace it with compassion and tolerance and love.
I wish you all the courage to have an adventurer's heart.
And as Dylan said, "May you stay forever young."