The above may be a good entry title for the end of a pandemic—and it feels like that, with two shots in my arm, competence in government returned—but in this case it refers to this being my post of a commencement speech I gave to high school graduates two years ago. Giving presentations, I think you can get away with a lack of preparation if you are the expert on the subject, or just speaking your truth. A speech of any length you can’t Ad lib. But although I didn’t begin writing this until late in the morning the day of the ceremony, I took my task seriously. Two years on my own older daughter, Eleri, is graduating from Arizona School for the Arts and moving on to college. Her performance has far surpassed my own—the only time I was ever on the honor roll at Central High—my last semester—I wondered how the hell it had happened. And her character is far better than mine. Eleri— ah, I’m so proud of you, my little buddy. My amazing young daughter. My teacher. I hope these words work for you.
Good evening Guardian graduates,
parents and family,
teachers and staff.
I’m happy and honored to be asked to say a few (thousand) words on this momentous occasion.
Throughout the years I have often thought of what I could say to young people, or to my younger self, that would be useful. As I begin this endeavor, I’d like to give two warnings.
One, I am an easy cry.
I’m constantly crying in public while writing novels,
and though it makes me feel like an idiot to be weeping at my own words, I cried while writing this, and it just might happen reading it this evening. Two, a friend once said of me that I was the only person they knew who interrupted himself.
Another friend said, “listening to Paul is a little like hearing John Coltrane play the saxophone. He usually has some kind of point, but he tends to wander a bit.”
Hopefully reading from this scroll will keep these things from happening.
Parents and teachers are forever trying to spare young people
the mistakes they themselves have made,
to smooth out the rough edges of their own experiences,
to find a shorter,
easier path to happiness.
That is, except for those parents and teachers who want to make sure
that the new generation has to suffer at least as much as they did.
Before I had an agent and a book deal,
when I was self publishing my first two books,
I called my acknowledgements page “Oats For The Dark Horse,”
where I thanked people who gave me encouragement along my way as a writer.
All of you are longshots, dark horses, though you may not know it yet.
You are longshots because the world wants to chew you up and spit you out.
It wants to crush your dreams, enslave you for the purposes of others. The world has its way with you more often than not.
Your mission is to resist,
and to find your own true purpose.
This will be your fight every day.
I feel that my duty this evening is to offer a handful of oats to you dark horses,
to help you have strength for your journeys.
Your journey will be long,
you will need many handfuls of oats,
so take them where you can find them.
Tonight is a checkpoint in your journeys.
It’s time for you to get off this campus,
It’s time to say goodbye to your teachers,
to move along to whatever comes next for you.
But it’s also a point at which to say,
hey, good job, kid,
you’ve learned so much,
you’ve grown so much,
we can’t wait to see what comes next for you.
Believe it when you hear it from others,
and say it to yourself,
and believe it when you say it to yourself.
Good job, kid.
A cautionary tale, as you may know, is a story meant to scare people,
mainly the young,
from engaging in some dangerous or prohibited behavior.
For much of my life,
I’ve felt that I’ve been a living cautionary tale for others.
I’ve made so many mistakes,
I’ve provided learning opportunities for everyone who has known me. I can’t even go to the bank without being a training opportunity. Perhaps that is what makes me qualified to stand here this evening. Or perhaps it is that,
in recent years,
people have told me that I am a model of perseverance.
Today I am celebrating 19,899 consecutive days without a fatal accident. So there’s that.
It’s amazing the things you can live through.
I’d like to read a poem by Allen Ginsberg,
because I don’t want to miss this opportunity to corrupt the youth
while they are still young.
This poem is called My Alba.
Alba means “Sunrise” in Spanish, as those of you who were smart enough to take Spanish instead of German might already know.
The poem was written in 1953, in New York City.
Picture Ginsberg living in a tiny coldwater flat somewhere in lower Manhattan,
back when someone with very little money could afford a tiny flat in lower Manhattan.
Now that I’ve wasted
five years in Manhattan life decaying
talent a blank
talking disconnected patient and mental sliderule and number machine on a desk
autographed triplicate synopsis and taxes obedient prompt poorly paid
stayed on the market youth of my twenties fainted in offices wept on typewriters
in vast conspiracies deodorant battleships serious business industry
every six weeks whoever drank my blood bank innocent evil now
part of my system
five years unhappy labor 22 to 27 working
not a dime in the bank to show for it anyway
dawn breaks it’s only the sun the East smokes O my bedroom I am damned to Hell what alarm clock is ringing
Three years later his immense poem HOWL would be published by City Lights Books in San Francisco, and Allen Ginsberg probably woke at whatever hour he pleased from that point on.
I’d like to paint a picture,
and then I’ll talk some more,
and then I’ll present another snapshot.
Paul Mosier, 1981.
Sophomore at Central High.
I’m eating dinner with my parents
at a restaurant called Beefeater’s
at 3rd avenue and Camelback
in Central Phoenix.
The sort of place where gray haired people
would eat slabs of beef
The busboy who pours our water,
wearing a medieval peasant shirt with poofy arms, is a good looking kid from Central,
a year older than me,
named Dave Foster.
My parents have been bugging me to get a job
even though I don’t believe in jobs
and don’t have any real need for money
as long as they keep giving it to me
but I ask for an application.
I take it home, fill it out, bring it back.
Weeks later on a Monday at school
the walls are covered in graffiti.
We love you Dave,
spray painted all over campus.
Dave Foster had been at the river
someone jumped off a cliff and landed on him
his body came up a mile downstream.
A few days later Beefeater’s called my home
and I was offered a dead boy’s job.
The maitre’d reminded me again and again that I was too slow, setting tables and clearing tables,
pouring people’s water.
I was drunk at work as much as I could be,
as I was a practicing alcoholic from 8th grade
until just before my 25th birthday.
There’s only so much you can learn from
being a busboy.
Forks on the left, salad fork on the outside.
Knife and spoon on the right, spoon on the outside.
I hope I have remembered it correctly,
or it will all have been a complete waste of my time.
No, that’s not really true, the one important thing I learned was economic justice, or the lack thereof.
When I’d bring the dishes back to the dishwasher,
I’d see two grown men,
laboring in the heat and steam.
Every time I’d go back with a tub of dishes
they’d say “agua!” and point to a pitcher.
I had no idea what they were trying to say to me.
Like an idiot
or a Nazi
I took German in High School
though I was surrounded by Spanish speakers.
This went on for weeks
Their saying “agua,”
pointing to a pitcher,
until I figured out they were offering to me their home made aguas frescas, made of fresh strawberries and other fruits,
and ice and water.
Nectar of the gods.
After my first taste of it they had to double their batches to keep me hydrated.
These same generous men,
working in fear of immigration raids on the kitchen,
would walk home to their families late every night,
while I drove a car handed down by my parents.
They worked harder,
were paid less
though they had families to feed,
just because of where they were born.
I thought of how before our births
we are random seeds
blowing on a windy day
landing here or there
I was fired from Beefeaters for drinking on the job. They did not lock up the vermouth,
because who would drink the vermouth?
It tasted like fermented aquarium water.
I would drink vermouth, and did.
first day of class,
the young teacher, Mrs Kirker,
whom every boy would crush on
asks if there is something we would like to be called instead of our given name.
I tell her I go by Smith
which is not true.
So she calls me Smith all year long.
Good work, Smith.
She introduces me to the first poem that speaks to me, The Plot Against The Giant
by Wallace Stevens
and has us analyze song lyrics
like Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen
and brings her guitar to class
and wears black the day after John Lennon is shot. She also encourages my writing
and is the best teacher ever
but leaves after one year
returning to her native Ohio.
Also at this time
in High School
I have my first car accident,
my first car sent to the junkyard,
an old LTD,
which I crashed into the side of Squaw Peak
which is now known as Piestewa Peak.
The car ended upside down.
The policeman knew I had been drinking
but didn’t press the issue,
probably thinking it was real enough for me to be looking at my car upside down.
I’d like to read another poem, this one by Robert Frost. It is likely familiar to many of you. From 1916, it is called The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The poem is most often taken to mean that one should choose their own path, that one must choose their own path. And I think that’s a beautiful and useful interpretation.
But it only tells part of the story. Because two roads will diverge again and again, countless times throughout your lives, and what makes all the difference is choosing the one that feels right again and again, to make that choice as often as possible, to make a life of making that choice, to spend your days walking a path that makes your feet light instead of weary.
If there is anything I would wish for you, it is that you can spend your lives with people and occupations that fill you up, which make your cup and your soul runneth over, and not people and occupations which drain you and crush your spirit. That, I think, is the key to happiness. I know from managing the money of people who have a lot of it that money doesn’t cure financial insecurity, that people with the most money worry about money the most. And money, though we all need some of it, does not bring happiness proportionately. So find some other way to measure your happiness, to define it.
In the years since high school I have crashed maybe 15 cars, I had five majors in five years as an undergraduate, and something else in grad school, none of which had anything to do with anything I’ve ever made a living at. I have had miserable jobs where they kept track of how long you were in the bathroom every quarter, I’ve made so many mistakes, and
sometimes I’ve learned from them. But there are some important things I’ve done right. Among my five majors in college, I eventually chose subjects– History, Political Science, and Philosophy– that filled me up instead of draining me, that made me feel like my head was on fire, in a good way. And even though my graduate work in Early Childhood Education didn’t lead to me becoming a teacher, as I didn’t feel like enough of a grown-up to be in charge of a class, working as a teacher’s aide while I was in school, I never doubted the value or virtue of what I was doing for five bucks an hour. I don’t regret that I’ve filled enough journals to fill a large steam trunk, that I’ve come to know myself and become myself through writing. I don’t regret the years I spent making half my living as an artist with no training, painting enormous canvases. I don’t regret the mid 1990’s, when I wrote short stories and sent them to the sorts of literary publications that paid you in copies. These things never made me rich, but they filled me up, sustained my spirit, kept me alive.
It’s not that all my unsatisfying, soul crushing jobs were mistakes. When we are trying to live for today, living like it’s our last day on earth, it’s wise to have a contingency plan in case we live for another 100 years. But I never forgot about the dark horse, my dark horse. I gave it handfuls of oats when I could, and took it out to stretch its legs.
I doubted that I could write a novel, I thought my head was too messy, random, chaotic to pull off something of that size. But I tried it anyway, for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in November of 2012. It turns out I could write a novel. Now I feel like I was made for this. My first, Breakfast At Tuli’s, is about a young woman with an unusual psychological difficulty, who is attracted to men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her, and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own desire as he waits for her to find happiness with a member of her own species. I sent it to approximately 150 literary agents, and while some provided strong encouragement, none wanted to represent it. I self-published it, and it has deeply moved several dozen
people. The second and third novels I wrote I sent to fewer agents before self-publishing, because I knew I could have a rewarding experience sharing them with a very small audience. By the time I wrote Train I Ride, the second book I wrote for Middle Graders, I had very little hope of finding an agent and a publisher, but I sent it to 20 agents anyway, figuring I’d give it a shot, or a decent burial. Only one of the 20 wanted to see it. She liked Train I Ride quite a lot, and it only took her two weeks to find two of the big 5 publishers wanting it, and HarperCollins acquired it in a pre- empt, a two book deal with an option for a third, and enough money that I could have quit my day job on the spot. Instead I’ve just ignored it for the past few years.
So, don’t give up on your dark horse. Be patient with it. Give it handfuls of oats when you can, take it out and stretch its legs. Whatever it is that fills you up instead of draining you, spend as much time walking down that path as you can. Don’t give up on the dark horse, because it will never give up on you. One day you may be able to ride it all day long.
I still am not a guy you want to ask for a ride, even though I quit drinking almost 30 years ago. My most recent wrecked car was a twenty year old Mercedes S500. I managed to get t-boned by a double-length bus, which hit me right in the driver door without having a chance to slow down. Though it hurt to breathe for the next couple of weeks, I walked away without a scratch or a broken bone, though, interestingly, my right shoe came off on impact. Naturally the next car I bought was another 20 year old Mercedes S500, which I recommend for absent minded drivers like myself. Beefeaters, where I was fired for drinking on the job in high school, closed many years ago, as the customers gradually died from heart attacks and vascular difficulties. After being empty for several years, it was remodeled and is now home to Changing Hands Bookstore, my home base, the flagship store of my worldwide book distribution. As I sign a stack of my novels there, I can look to the corner where the generous Spanish speaking
dishwashers labored and shared with me their home made aguas frescas. I can think of what I learned from them, and be happy also that my work has been translated to Spanish.
A couple of years ago I searched Facebook and found Mrs Kirker, my sophomore year high school English teacher. Though she has a different last name, her smile was the same, she listed Bruce Springsteen among her favorite musicians, and she still teaches. I sent her a message saying I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m sorry for duping you into calling me Smith all year long, and thank you for introducing me to the first poem that ever spoke to me, and thank you for wearing black when John Lennon was shot and showing me it’s okay to feel, and even to cry in public, and though you probably have never been paid enough, please know that to the password question of who is your favorite teacher, you are the answer. She wrote back and sad “Of course I remember you, Smith!” Today she is among my biggest fans, strongest supporters, and she and her husband, who is a middle school teacher, both teach my novels as part of their curriculum.
I’ve learned that whatever you plan for life, or expect from it, it’s gonna bring you something very different. My younger daughter, Harmony, passed to the next dimension last May after a two year battle with a rare cancer. She’s my spirit animal and my teacher. One of the things she made me realize is we don’t know how many days we have been given. You can be a perfect, wise, funny, insanely creative and courageous girl and be taken from this life at nine years, or you can drive like an idiot, send 15 cars to the junkyard, and still be breathing. But the important thing isn’t how many breaths we are allotted, but rather what it is we are doing while we breathe our allotment of breaths. Two paths diverge, again and again, maybe every day. Walk the one that feels right, that fills you up, that lifts you. It’s the best we can hope for in life.
I tried to find a poem that would make a good bookend opposite the Ginsberg poem, the poem that begins with Now that I have wasted five
years in Manhattan and ends with I am damned to hell what alarm clock is ringing.
I had a hard time finding such a poem, which perhaps points to the difficulty of living in a manner the opposite of Ginsberg’s five wasted years in Manhattan.
But then I thought, it is for you, Guardians, dark horses, to write that poem. Maybe it begins with Now that I have lived richly, and maybe it ends with I am lucky, I am blessed as I leave my body and step into the unknown.
But I think it is for you to find that poem, to write it.
One last thing–
please don’t wait 35 years to tell your favorite teacher what they meant to you, to thank them for the handfuls of oats. I think you’ll find it incredibly gratifying, and I know your teacher will.
Now, quills up, Guardians! Go forth and write your poem! Congratulations!