Thank you so much Mark (Gearan), my friend for these many past years and an example who I believe gives us all courage and hope.
I'm so honored to be here today with all of you. I want to congratulate those of you who are graduating today, going out into the world to make those choices between the good and the good and to put yourselves on the front line of being part of the solution, because it is being part of the solution that we are going to talk about today, and I'd like to congratulated all of your teachers. Those of you who have been right there making sure you learn the things and read the things and see the things that you need to carry you through these coming years of your life of service and commitment and professionalism and joy. Let's not forget the joy. And to the parents, I want to say, "You did it." Congratulations.
You know I always talk a bit about my family, about my father, about where I came from because I think that's very important. I talk always a bit about my father, who was remarkable. He probably gave me the determination, perhaps the stubbornness that my life has taken. A lot of the creativity, he was a great singer, he was a writer, he was a personality in the radio business and never hesitated to talk about his political thoughts, his philosophies, sing his songs and make joy a part of people lives on the radio. Fifteen minutes, half an hour at a time, in Seattle and Denver and Los Angeles. He was, indeed, an inspiration-a man, who had great courage and who overcame his disabilities in order to become a person who saw. And he always saw very deeply to the core of what was important. He said, "How could I have prejudice? I don't know what color people are. I see to the heart." Because I was the first-born and I was a girl, he said, "You can do anything and you know that." I believe that my father's and my mother's faith in me as the eldest, as someone who had gifts that they expected me to nurture and to follow through on, gave me the courage to be where I am today because they thought there was no difference in being a girl, being a boy, and I am a product of the 50s, so outside of my family there was some different view of that.
But today I want to say something also about my mother. Tomorrow is Mother's Day and my mother, who's 86, has just come from a week of studying Shakespeare and taking classes at an elder hostel in Ashland, Oregon. She quit the Denver Museum after she has been a doyen and a volunteer in that museum for almost 30 years. Last year her book club finished reading all of "Remembrance of Things Past" and she took some time to go to the library and study the Dreyfus case, which comes up in that great work. My mother is an amazing person, and again, I credit her for her courage-for her ability to see beyond quite often the limitations of her situation. To marry a man whose heart she believed in, whose gifts she believed in, and to take on the life that she would have, which was different than other peoples. Her family who said, "Don't marry Charlie, you know, you don't want to be burdened with a man with that kind of disability." And my mother saw beyond that and said, "You know, there are things that you can't see."
I believe the thing about life that is so mysterious is that we all live in a world that is 95 percent unseen. We think, we dream, we listen to music, and thank you for the beautiful music. (Collins said to the musical ensemble members) It was beautiful and uplifting and it reminded me, of course, of the lyrics to that old Shaker or Quaker hymn. I don't ever remember which. "'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free, 'tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we are in the place just right, 'twill be in the valley of love and delight," (Collins sang). Beauty and joy and solutions are all part of service.
I was nervous about today because there are so many things I want to say and I realize I don't have all afternoon to say them in. So it reminded me of the little boy who wanted very much to have a special 9-speed green bike and wrote to God; he went right to the top. He was about 9 years old and he said, "Dear God, if I could have that 9-speed green bike I'll be good for a year." Of course he was an honest young man so he tore that up and threw it away and started again. He said, "Dear God, if I can have that terrific bike that I saw on E-bay, I will behave myself for 6 months, let's say." He tore that up and dropped it in the wastebasket and then he saw a little statue of the Virgin Mary on his mother's desk. He picked her up and wrapped her in one of his mother's scarves and put her in a shoebox way at the back of the closet and shut the door firmly and came back and began again. "Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again." (laughter from the audience)
Of course, the issues of spirituality and religion always are subjects of thoughtful, sometimes quite physical debate. I've always thought, however, that the difference between spirituality and religion is that religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there already. So, the little boy though he was young, knew what he was talking about. Because I was raised in this family of service, my father showed up at the Lions' Clubs and civic centers. I remember being taken to a Salk-vaccine fundraiser when I was about 9 years old and I was always being taken to fundraisers of various in sundry kinds and my father was always talking about the state of the world and trying to galvanize our interest and our attention around the issues, even in the late 60s, of what the French were doing in Indochina. He didn't think they should be there, and of course, I was very prepared when I began my career in music. Actually, my career in music started when I was about 4 years old because my dad would take me out on the stage to sing and he would play the piano for me and so it was. I've really been doing this probably more like 60 years, and I celebrate that anniversary with great gratitude because I have been totally blessed in my work, in my life, and there are, with every life, beautiful moments and terrible moments. I think it's important for all of us to think about and communicate about both the terrible and the beautiful.
Ira Progroff is one of my favorite teachers. A teacher of writing, and he says that all of us somehow in our lives have to write our own bibles, have to sort through our own experiences and find out which are the things in which our souls reside, in which our hope resides. And what it is that we do that may be able to give some other companion on this road some courage to go on. So when I came into my singing years I had already studied for many years with a woman named Antonia Brico. I want to speak about her for a moment, because I think like my mother, she had a tremendous amount of courage of her convictions. Couple of years ago I was here to celebrate, in Syracuse, the anniversary of the Women's Rights Movement, which really began in 1848 here in Seneca Falls, so it's appropriate that a woman whose life changed mine in very dramatic ways was part of my upbringing. I studied piano with her but I also knew her story. She was a pioneer who never let anybody tell her she couldn't do something. That's something that when people ask me, "Well, what's your advice? What is your word of courage in going forward in life?" Never tell someone "They can't." And never let anybody tell you that, "You can't." Because the truth is that your psyche, your energy, the power that comes to you from all of that unseen source out there, if you make your mind up to do something, it will give you that courage. It'll find you the people that you need to find. It will discover for you what you may not think you can discover. I think that's the most important thing in the world to have in our hearts. You know Antonia, when she was a young woman, was told she never would become a conductor. Everyone told her that. The conductors of her time told her that and she finally met a man in New York who was a guru. His name was Yogananda. He was the first person to bring the kind of meditation to the West that he taught and she started going to Carnegie Hall in 1924 to listen to him. She told me that she was drinking and smoking and carrying on. I find that hard to believe. You don't like to think that about your teachers. We know that. I thought she was above and beyond all of that, but apparently not. And he arranged for her to decide that nobody could tell her "no." And she in fact was accepted into the conducting school in 1925 and graduated there and conducted the Berlin Philharmonic, and came back to tremendous adulation of crowds of people who fought over her to conduct in California at Berkley, where she had gone to school, and at the Hollywood Bowl.
Now, I wanted to tell her story because she was a pioneer, because she was a treasure. And, of course, another opportunity for service showed itself to me. I was led to the people who helped me make a movie about her. It came out in 1974. She didn't believe any of it. She would always say, "No, no, no, I'll believe it when I see it. Always people promise me this and it never happens." But it did happen. The story is a marvelous story. In Antonia's life, in 1974, there was a total rebirth. She conducted all over the world once again. She was on "60 Minutes" with Mike Wallace. Her story was on PBS. She was the opening film in the Whitney. She was in "Telluride." "Time" magazine picked the film, which I directed and produced, directed with my co-director Jill Godmillow, and she was everywhere. We'd go to the Russian Tea Room, or she'd come back stage to see me after my shows. Now, this was a woman with whom I had studied Rochmaninoff, played Mozart with her orchestra, and her heart was broken when I threw over Rochmaninoff for versions of the Bluetail Fly. She could not come to terms with that. Trying to become a conductor she could deal with. Me? No. So she would come back stage and she would take my hands in hers and she would say, "Little Judy, you really could have gone places."
And so I had the chance to do for someone. But of course those opportunities for service are everywhere in our lives. The little things: smiling at your neighbor, getting flowers for a friend, being positive, finding a solution. Deciding that today you'll wear the blue dress because it makes you happy. Digging in to your purse to support causes that you believe in. Becoming an advocate for a cause that you feel strongly about. As Mark (Gearan) said, "Quite often, there are so many yeses and it is hard to sort your way through them at times." I have had the privilege of doing many things in my life that I feel are positive things, and one of the greatest honors in past years has been to become involved with UNICEF. My husband, Louis Nelson, is here. Take a bow Louis. We've been together 24 years. Is that amazing? Louis is an industrial designer. He is a very eclectic man. He designed the wall, the Korean Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and he also has designed the Dag Hammarskjold Medal for the people who have lost their lives in the service of peacekeeping, particularly those who serve with the United Nations. So the opportunities for service in his life have been great and continue to be so.
In my extraordinary gift of becoming a spokesperson to the arts for UNICEF, I have done some traveling. I've been to Viet Nam. Both of us have traveled there. To Bosnia, a couple of times. My interest in what UNICEF does is profound. I believe in the community of UNICEF. The 162 countries they serve around the world. The landmine issue became something I have come to feel passionate about and have spoken about and written about and I must say, there's some good news in the landmine arena, which is amazing. But it is true that there are some pieces of progress. Fewer countries today are manufacturing and involved in landmine sales. The Lahey Bill remains to keep our country from trading, from selling the mines that are manufactured. Fewer companies are making them. There are, I think, 133 countries that have signed the Ottawa Agreement to ban landmines. So, there is progress. Kosovo has had a tremendous amount of landmine clearance.
The other day I was at the United Nations for the dedication of a landmine awareness garden, a peace garden. It's by the wall on which the words of "We shall beat our swords into plow shares" appears and the garden was dedicated by a group called Roots for Peace and there was a woman there names Heidi Kuhn, who started an organization called Mines to Vines. Now this is one person in San Francisco in the winery business who heard about the landmine problems around the world. When I first was traveling for UNICEF it was 110 million mines in something like 68 countries. Now, I think the level is down. I heard some other figures the other day that indicate that landmine removal is really happening and the humanitarian division of the Pentagon is actually making a difference around the world. Anyway, Heidi Kuhn took it upon herself to start an organization called Mines to Vines and she's made a huge difference.
I think that and so many stories like that tell us that we can make a difference. One person can always make a difference. It is inherent in the community that politics starts at home, which is what I was always told. Service begins at home, which is what I was told. It begins at home, which is what I was always told. It starts with the communication with the teenager, with the mother, with the father, with the neighbor, and how those conflict resolutions that come up on our own personal lives can be resolved. That's where conflict resolution begins. So, I think I have been privileged to see so much good being done by so many people, and sometimes I've been able to join and say something or sing something that might make a difference.
The title of this talk today is that this is the secret. Service is the secret to creativity and to success and I think that's true for me. Within the service that I've done have come so many gifts and I don't really see it as service because I don't always feel that there's much of a choice. If you have a certain thought about the world and your desire to see it be a better place when you leave, there's really not too much you can do to avoid those circumstances. Perhaps in some places there's more that people do, but I would say that all of you have had the kind of exposure and the kind of background that lets you see that that's what can enrich your life and broaden your life and make it exciting and give it dynamic and enrich whatever it is you choose to do. If you choose law, if you choose music, if you choose bridge building, whatever you choose, being part of the solution in the community will lead you to those places where you can find the joy of service.
I want to just say a few words about a song that has been my, I suppose you'd say that its been my anthem. When I was a little girl, of course my mother, my father always said we were all Irish. He didn't want to hear about our being English and Scots, which we are, but he didn't want to know about that. My mother, on the other hand, warned me about Irish Alzheimer's. That's where you forget everything but the grudges.
But when I was little, my grandmother, who was born in Ohio and lived in Tennessee. Born in 1877 actually, would sing me "Amazing Grace" and that's where I first heard the song when I was probably just a little girl. I recorded the song and it was quite a success here and in other parts of the world, but it was here that I found the roots of the song and the background of the song and I'd like to share that with you. You may know something of this story. A kind of service was performed by disaster. I think silver linings come out of disaster. I think that good follows things that look terrible on the surface. In this time following 9/11, I have seen the country, the city, my city, New York, and the world begin to do some incredibly deep and different thinking about life on the planet as it is in 2002. And this song has been as meaningful and as important in the memorials and the places that I've sung the song recently, as it has been ever since I learned it.
"Amazing Grace" was written by a man who was a slave trader. He was a captain of a ship. It was 1784, they estimate. He had been brought up by a very religious mother, but he was a pretty wild guy. Let's put it that way. In the shipwreck he almost died, and when he came out of his wounds and injuries he wrote "Amazing Grace" and then spent the rest of his life writing hymns. You can often see his credit in hymnals. This man's name was John Newton.
I've always thought that this song in its power and in its transformational beauty, carries the message of service about as deeply as any piece of art could. Mysteriously the melody stays with you. Mysteriously the lyrics translate to all genders, all religions, all countries, all sex, because miracles happen anywhere. So I will just remind you that out of a great tragedy came transcendence. This was a man who fought for the abolition of slavery until his death after having been on a very different side of that question. You have to believe in miracles to live joyfully, I believe. Whatever we call our spiritual beliefs, however we practice our conviction that there's something watching us, healing us, energizing us, driving us, inspiring us-the disciplines that go into our study. The kinds of skills you've learned and keep honed so that you can go forward. They're all sort of meant to be there when that moment comes, when transcendence comes. When you can be the instrument of change, the instrument of inspiration, the instrument of joy.
(Ms. Collins sings "Amazing Grace")
I'd like you to join me if you would and sing this song all together. You could sing the melody or the harmony or another song entirely if you'd like, because it is the spirit that counts you know.
(All sing "Amazing Grace")
Congratulations to all of you.
Commencement Address by Gloria Steinem
June 14, 1998