Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Haunting Lost Words On Tape, Canada's Greatest Speech? (54)

This is a world's first I believe - I don't think these words have ever been published until now. They form what i consider to be the best speech ever spoken in Canada. I welcome arguments to the contrary. But I personally don't know of any more persuasive.

For 12+ years, i couldn't shake the memory of the words, spoken at my college in Vancouver. It's haunted me for more than a decade. On November 28, 1996, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist gave a speech to test time. She is no longer alive now.

That year, she spoke at War Memorial Gym - a place that probably never heard such inspiration since Supertramp sung - the last band ever allowed to play there.

The last time (before Nov 28, 1996)  i had visited my old college on graduation day, i randomly held the door open for a man so he could receive his honorary degree inside War Memorial Gym - on November 24, 1994 - he was in a wheel chair. I was shocked to discover who he was as I pushed his wheel chair through a Student Union Building doorway en route to the gym next door. I was just a stranger passing by, helping a man in a wheelchair (his wheel was stuck). When i looked at him after pushing him through, i was startled to see the face of a man I had seen play in Toronto's Roy Thompson Hall in 1987. He was my hero, a legend. His name was Oscar Peterson (who sadly passed away on December 23, 2007, after 65 years of incredible live performances). He played one handed on the piano with the sound of two hands then. Like Liszt, he could span more keys with one hand than almost all his peers (he can play a 12th). In 1993, I had heard he suffered a stroke; it was startling for me to see Oscar in a wheel chair. He would still in years to come perform one-handed (no longer with the use of the other hand). Decades earlier, Oscar had also played in War Memorial Gym in the 1950s. I had seen the advertisement of a young piano phenom in the archives of my college paper. He started performing live at 14. That day i experienced his first return to War Memorial Gym since he performed as a young piano phenom inside. It is because i had randomly bumped into Oscar, while visiting my college two years before, that i was inspired to see who was randomly speaking this day at my college.

On November 28, 1996, i wasn't expecting much. I hadn't read any of her books (still haven't, strangely). But Carol Shields had won a Pulitzer Prize for Stone Diaries. Years later a friend of mine would option a book called Larry's Party as a birthday or valentine's gift for his significant other (who ended up breaking his heart and his soul). At that time, i thought what an incredible gift. Carol was sick by then and we thought this would be her last book. She passed away in 2003 of breast cancer, able to write one more book Unless. She was the mother of four daughters and a son. She married a Canadian engineer she met in Scotland. She was a masters student in Ottawa. She once taught at the University of British Columbia. She wrote mostly in Winnipeg. In 1996, she became Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. She passed away in Victoria.

Carol was born in 1935 in Chicago's Oak Park (where Frank Lloyd Wright lived) in my home state of Illinois. The Pulitzer Prize winning writer was also a playwright, critic, journalist, poet, short-story writer, and professor. Her works were described that day by our college president as "beautifully crafted and subtly innovative...a stylist with an eye for character....she continually draws her readers into the complexities of perception and interpretation, the constructions of truth and reality."

Once upon a time in 1991 my personal writings were discussed in classes of this college. I hope one day these words of Carol Shields I have transcribed below will one day be discussed in classes. They merit discovery.

That day, I walked into the gym and was blown away by what i consider one of the greatest speeches ever - and the greatest said in Canada. But there was a major issue of finding her speech in my recent revival quest. The words of this famed novelist were ironically never written down in any of the college's archives and were nowhere to be seen on the internet. Inspiring words from one of our continent's greatest authors didn't exist in written form anywhere. i searched months.

I started making inquiries to UBC archivist Leslie Field in Vancouver by email and phone from Toronto on September 10, 2008. He reported to have discovered some cassette tapes and possibly a video tape related to the graduation ceremonies of that day. Yes, plural. There was more than one ceremony. But there was no transcription to be found. The tapes - which might contain this speech - apparently existed in the same library where my writings from 20 years ago are also the same college where historical writings from my mother in law are also archived. But no transcript existed for what i considered to be the greatest speech said in Canada. It was a crapshoot to find them in tapes from some ceremonies that day.

And so, I flew more than 2000 the Pretenders search of this speech and returned to my college. Before entering the library...i visited the Student Union Building from where i first published works. My first best friend in college still worked there in 2009. I met her in 1988 and hadn't seen her in maybe six years. She was off this day so i couldn't surprise Lyanne. Maybe, next time, when i fact check the words of the first transcription I've ever done in my life.

* * *

The transcript almost didn't happen. I met archivist Leslie Field - five months after contacting him, in the week after Carol Shield's birthday (February 10). There were no cassette tapes or video tapes searchable by title specifically labeled "Carol Shields" but there were two cassette tapes and one video recorded from that day.

Archivist Leslie Field told me today that they (the archivists) don't proactively ask folks to record speeches made by famous people receiving an honorary degree. Usually tapes arrive over the transom years later randomly - potentially posthumously - in whatever form and labels they have. In this case, the titles were keyword unfriendly (who would guess "congregation" AND "November 28, 1996" would be the magic search words). It was fortunate a peer of Leslie Fields knew how to find this small box of no-name tapes. It was also fortunate the library had an ancient cassette player and video player to witness the tapes. Leslie disappeared for 15 minutes into some back room vault--unseen to the public--to emerge with tapes. Among them, Title: "Thursday Nov. 28 1996 CONGREGATION." Playlist: "THE INSTALLATION OF THE NEW CHANCELLOR + MORNING CONGREGATION."

As I watched the video and listened to the first tape (afternoon graduation session), I was disappointed to not find Carol Shields. But with the last tape, at time code 30:00, i found her voice in a tape generically labeled: "Thursday, November 28, 1996, congregation...morning." Like i said, not exactly search friendly. But it was a miracle that came to be in the finding of this speech...words that would have been tragically lost if not recorded in some ancient media format.

* * *

Today I have to give her untitled speech a name. A publisher has such a duty when thinking of a title for an untitled work. I think i will call it Honoris Causa.. It means a "degree conferred to honour the recipient." It was said to Carol Shields when she received her honorary degree at UBC. Ed. ~ I'll also subtitle it now Tempus Fugit - November 8, 2010. Easier to remember. It means Time Flies in Latin.

* * *

Honoris Causa (Tempus Fugit)
Chancellor Sauder,* President Strangway,** friends, family, ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great honor to be asked to speak at a graduation ceremony. It's an overwhelming honor, i should say since there is something frighteningly presumptuous about addressing a group of individuals who have arrived at the moment of degree giving and are about to go into the future.

For a graduation speaker, there are expectations. One is supposed to say something inspirational since it is assumed that the speaker has acquired wisdom; and that wisdom can be transmitted. Well, I stand here humbly very uncertain indeed about my ability to inspire or even about the nature of inspiration or shared insight.

Do i have anything at all to say and do you who are graduating today have any desire to be laden with another's life experience?

I am of course haunted by my own university graduation address. In 1957, before Jack Kennedy was elected President of the United States; before the Vietnam War; before any of us heard of Pierre Elliot Trudeau; before Woodstock; before the tumult of the 60s, the confusion of the 70s, the greed of the 80s; before all this--i lined up with 100 fellow students in a small Presbyterian College*** in Indiana to receive my Bachelor of Arts degree. It was a hot day, a very hot day. 30C. Not that any of us knew how to convert to Celsius. Under our black ceremonial robes, my girlfriends and I wore by common agreement nothing (hoots, laughter).

This was considered high daring in those late 50(s) days. In the years that were to follow, insurrection took more radical turns. Graduates in fact were scarcely ever present at their commencement ceremonies. Ceremony itself was jettisoned.

But on that June day in 1957, our speaker was a young and extremely popular (baby starts crying in crowd)**** math professor at our college.

He put his message squarely but prefaced his remarks by saying(baby in crowd stops crying) that we were highly unlikely to remember anything he might say that day. And he was right. I for one sat dreaming about my wedding six weeks hence, but dimly through my faraway romantic thoughts, i heard him say that he would be happy if we carried away a single phrase from that day. And this was it. June, 1957, the phrase was: "Tempus Fugit."

Now i don't know if any of you sitting out there have studied Latin. But in those days, most of us had had a smattering. In any case, we knew what "Tempus Fugit" meant.

It meant "time flies."

Our commencement speaker was telling us that unless we seize the moment - every moment - our lives would get away from us. They would be eroded, erased, wasted. Thrown away through carelessness...lost.

I remembered those words.

And in the years to follow, years in which i might be changing diapers, washing floors, driving children here and there, sewing, shopping, cooking meals, writing thank you notes, weeding the garden, reading a little poetry on the sly...those words would occasionally come back to me:

"Tempus Fugit."

Time was hurrying by. Brushing past me. I could almost hear the flapping of the winged chariot. My little life was left behind in the dust. I was standing still or so i thought. The words "Tempus Fugit" whenever i paused to recollect my graduation day spooked me, scared me. I was persuaded that i had failed, because i was not filling everyday with accomplishment. I was not pushing forward and making the most of my allotted time on earth.

And so today, fully conscious of the presumption of graduation speakers' smugness, I would like to revise that dictum:

"Tempus does not Fugit."

Time is not cruel. Given the good luck of a long healthy life, as most of us are (sic), we have plenty--plenty of time. We have time to try our new selves. Time to experiment. Time to dream and drift. Time even to waste. Fallow time. Shallow time.

We'll have good years and bad years. And we can afford both. Every hour will not be filled with meaning and accomplishment as the world measures such things but there will be compensating hours so rich, so full, so humanly satisfying that we will become partners with time and not victims of it.

Most of us end up seeing our lives not as an ascending line of achievement but as a series of highly interesting chapters.

In all probability, we will work in a number of different jobs, in a number of different fields. Serial careers have become almost the norm. One decade or chapter of life introduces the next. And the climate of reward and its nature moves all over the map.

We may be rewarded when we least expect it. Even during an epoch when society tells us that no rewards are available or forthcoming.

In addition, the realities of biology and new ways of considering parenthood are more and more listened to and registered. And we know now our professional lives will have and must have accommodating patterns.

Some of this work has been initiated. Your generation will doubtless see its implementation. Your generation is likely to question and deconstruct the meta-narratives of our society, our social messages which are so deeply embedded that we don't always remember to hold them up to the light and ask what they mean.

Sometimes we repeat one of these social messages. George Eliot called them "formulas for thinking."

And we say that goes without saying...forgetting, that what goes without saying, needs to be said. Needs to be questioned. Such things as the bottom line is the bottom line. War equals valor and Tempus Fugit.

Rethinking is what is needed. Radical rethinking.

You will have the time in which to do this thinking. Time to try on a dozen different hats. Or even to go hatless.

And you will have time to change your mind.

It used to be said maddeningly often that women have the prerogative to change their minds. This was said in order to demean women to point to their lack of focus, their essential silliness. Men, on the other hand, were expected to be stand on high moral ground, never mind that the ground was shifting beneath their feet.

I wish you all good fortune, i wish you the power to stay alive in your be reflective, tolerant and open to new ideas.

I remember a discussion i heard once on the CBC, a debate on the wisdom of Sunday shopping. Now this subject has always interested me. It is not a trivial or merely political issue since it probes deeply, our societal values and our human needs. The debate involved a transcontinental telephone hook up. First we heard one side of the argument. I forget which and it doesn't matter....from a woman in Toronto. Then the moderator and i believe it was Peter Gzowski said, "and now let's hear from our west coast contingent."

There was a brief silence and then a crackling on the air waves. And then the speaker said, "i've--i've nothing to say. I was completely persuaded by your Toronto speaker."

Why do i remember this debate with such delight? Because its expression was so rare. Here was someone who was willing to be persuaded and, publicly, to change course, to widen out, to admit that life is not simple.

The poet Rilke tells us to be skeptical about the simple and to trust in the difficult. That difficulty has, in fact, a beautiful face.

"Tempus Fugit."

It is November 28, 1996.

Time is passing. The clock is ticking as we sit here. The world is turning. But you will not be overtaken by time if you instead befriend it, taking time in your own hands. Taking your time, your sweet time. Time to listen, to watch, to breathe, to change. Time is yours in all its fullness. Thank you.

* William Sauder was just named Chancellor of University of British Columbia right before Carol spoke. Carol was recently before this event named Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.
** David Strangway was my President from 1988 to 1992 and was a former NASA chief geologist known for his study of moon rocks. He raised $360 million for my college which has changed so much.
*** Hanover College (est. 1827)
**** whoever was that baby is probably a teenager today. There was a mother who received her degree this day.

* * *
Time flew as i transcribed this.
The library started to close at a quarter to five so i rushed to get to the last word. I will have to return tomorrow to fact check.

The college President gave kudos and wanted to note during his tenure he only had one similar incident of a graduate wearing nothing underneath. "He made sure we all knew he had nothing."

(Yes, the President, moon rock man, was mooned)

* * *

I keep on thinking, had i not bumped into Oscar Peterson randomly one day, one year, i would not have randomly been inspired by Carol's words. And had i called anyone but Leslie Field, i don't know if i could have found the tape. He was determined. Had the master archivist not known what generic title to look for, i would not have found the tape. Had i not flown to Vancouver to find it...the words would remain lost. Had i not had the urge to look for this speech last September in response to a discussion of lost art and lost art funding...this would not have happened.

It makes me think there are other things like this to be discovered somehow. I am going to include Carol as Woman (54) in my book 100 Women.

About the Book
100 Women is a book of 100 Women who have influenced the nature of things remarkably and made a huge difference in my life so that I can actually give a firsthand account. It is being written for my daughter and the many friends that I have who are also trying to make a difference. To make the book, each woman would need to have done something uniquely extraordinary that would probably not get too much recognition in life, but actually changes the nature of things – and our expectations. It is being written one woman at a time online.

* * *

Today, the day after, i went back.

First i met Lyanne. It was like yesterday. I told her i started writing again. She said, "good." The last time she saw me i was in the middle of a 10 year retirement from writing. She first met me as a writer 20 years ago. She reminded me i didn't call her for the first time in 20 years on her birthday. I called today to leave her a belated birthday. I keep this streak to remind me of what happiness means. She is my symbol of it.

Before seeing her i wondered if she were still happy. She probably wondered if i were still alive. She the happiest person i've ever met in my life.

And I am still alive.

Recently i met notable luminaries who coincidentally all went to the heart of a jungle either in the Amazon or Borneo where they met the happiest people in the world, detached from things that make people unhappy. There are so many reasons for someone to be unhappy eventually. I was so happy today to see Lyanne happy. She didn't miss a beat. This will inspire the next chapter of the book.

I returned to proof read the transcript...only minor changes were needed, one typo. I also wanted to transcribe President David Strangway's response to Carol Shield's speech:

"Dr. Shields we thank you for that really wonderful message. It was so thoughtful and articulate and i know that all of the people in this room will remember much of that in the next generation when the next speeches are given. I also want to point out that in my time here as President, there's only been once when i have been faced with the issue that you mentioned of attending your graduation with nothing under your gown. But the only one individual who did that made sure that we ALL knew that he had nothing under his gown."