Commencement Address

Living Your Life Story
Tamim Ansary '70
Reed College, May 15, 2006

tamim imageThank you Reed students, Reed community and, especially, Reed graduating class, for inviting me to be part of this important moment with you. I myself graduated from Reed College thirty-six years ago, and I wish I could tell you what was going through my mind as I sat where you're sitting now, waiting for my name to be called - but alas, I can't, because I didn't attend my own commencement ceremony. This is my first Reed commencement.

It wasn't that I thought the moment lacked significance. But in keeping with my times-this was 1970, the peak moment of "the sixties," the ethos then was "all ritual is empty ritual"-I believed that authenticity belonged only to such meanings as one could wrest individually from history. So yes, I knew I stood on a crucial threshold, from what to where I wasn't sure, but whatever it signified, the meaning of this moment seemed to me innately personal and incapable of being subsumed into any public ritual. For example: graduation meant I would now part ways with my college girlfriend. Graduation meant I would now be eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. For me in 1970, graduation meant I would have to cope with a fresh artillery of weekly letters from my father pleading with me to come back to Afghanistan. The one thing I knew was that I wasn't going back. No, I was here for good, to pursue an individual destiny as… well … I didn't know what.

But my thoughts on all this have changed. I see the point, now, in ritualizing those moments when we step in a place where countless others who have trod this way before have left footprints in the sand. How do such moments have significance? Let me try to get at this with a bit of storytelling. On graduation day, 1970, I thought civilization would collapse within ten years, tops, but more likely within six or seven, and I was not alone. Some version of this belief animated the counterculture, and after graduating from Reed I hung around Portland for six tumultuous years as part of a counterculture community, ardently immersed in building the pure new civilization that would replace the old one when it crumbled, a world of peaceful harmony and loving justice. We had community gardens and solar this'n'that and food co-ops and a radio station, and I worked on a collectively owned and operated newspaper called the Scribe, and our days were filled with meaning.

But the years passed and the juggernaut of industrial modernity hurled on, and it began to dawn on us, one by one, that civilization might not after all collapse. In fact it was our counterculture community that crumbled and we who scattered to the many winds, to become lawyers and sales executives and math professors and carpenters' wives.

I drifted down to San Francisco-the Reed College of cities-and became a writer. Along with textbooks and children's books and articles for newspapers, late at night, crouched over a keyboard in my basement, I wrote a passionate novel about the Portland days, called Sinking the Ark. Writing it was entirely about trying to make sense of what had happened to my generation in our twenties. Then I put the book on the shelf. And after that novel had been collecting dust for many years, I returned to Portland one summer day to see how the Real Thing compared to my fictional reconstruction.

But the Scribe had gone under long ago, and the church where we had our offices had been razed, and was a parking lot now, and the big communal house in which I lived with a shifting population of visionary others had been subdivided into high-end lawyers' offices, and Ken's Afterglow, the tavern where we used to drink and dance on Thursday nights, after putting the paper to bed, was a biker hangout now, and it smelled like the Morning After.

So the Real Thing, it turned out, was not in any place or object; it must exist only in the collective memory of we who had lived through that era and that experience. And some of that "we" were still around, so I hunted up old friends, and we sat on some of those big wraparound wooden porches you have in Portland, and drank beer, and reminisced about the old days. But it turned out that although we all had vivid and specific memories of that time, they were different memories even if they were of the same events, and there was no neutral point of reference from which to reconcile the contradictions. But if the Real Thing was not in any person or any memory, where was it? It struck me that, for me at least, my novel about Portland was as real as it gets.

I say all this to make a point. In my experience, the most powerful tool for finding meaning in the rush and tumble of random events is the metaphor of story. We're genetically coded for this, it's part of our genetic heritage as human beings. In the cave, when language first emerged, people were telling stories. We don't live in the brute facts of our material existence but in a narrative with some story-like arc and shape. When I read a story, or write one, or critique someone else's fiction, I know I am struggling toward an understanding of how a real life, and not just a fictional one, can work. A story breaks through only when it unfolds toward a deeper meaning; and it's the same with a life.

On a later return to Portland, I ran into Teya, who had been my girlfriend during the Portland years. We were married now, but not to each other, and we both had kids, but not one another's. One night, when we crossed paths at a dinner party, she said to me, "Oh, incidentally, I was cleaning out my attic, and I ran across all the letters you ever wrote me. I was going to throw them out, but you want them?" I shrugged, said sure, whatever. We lived in the same house or down the street from each other, so what letters? But we went out to her car, and she handed me a surprisingly thick bundle of documents proving that someone bearing my name actually existed in nineteen seventy three…and four… and five… And when I opened them, I recognized the voice even though I had forgotten the letters: it was me.

The last of these letters came to Teya from San Francisco. In it, I said I was giving up all my old ambitions: I could see that I wasn't going to change the world. I was no knight of the round table and there was no Camelot, and all I wanted now-and I listed the pitifully shrunken and trivial goals to which I then aspired: to love someone truly and be loved in return… to have a home, and to feel at home-somewhere in the world … To do some needed and meaningful work and receive a decent income for it … to have and deserve the respect of my society.

I could tell those words were written in sorrow and despair. This was a voice announcing the end of a dream. And I saw what I thought my life story meant then, exactly what I had tried to express in that novel I wrote, Sinking the Ark. I thought mine was a story about dreaming big and falling short. I thought that what my life revealed was the futility of high ideals.

But looking at that list of goals now, I felt stunned. First, because I could check them all off now: everything I had wanted twenty years earlier, I now had. But second, and more important, these goals no longer struck me as trivial. They seemed huge to me, huge. To have a home and feel at home somewhere in the world. We live in the age of the refugee: this is not nothing. Suddenly, I saw my whole past life in a new light and felt I understood my story at last. It didn't falsify the old story but only subsumed it into a larger tale. Now, I saw my life as an odyssey from the confusions of graduation day, 1970, to the clarity of this green valley with green pastures and rivers of milk and honey. The story was about peeling away layers of illusion to become my true self: this husband, this father, this writer of children's book-and my story looked done. They could roll the credits. The remaining years could just be sitting in my rocking chair dispensing wisdom and starting every third sentence with, "When I was your age…"

This was, I think, the summer of 2000. In September of the following year, terrorists destroyed the world trade center and shortly afterwards, the United States intervened in Afghanistan to overthrow the monstrous Taliban-and suddenly, it turned out that my life story was far from over, and that it was not nor had it ever been what I thought it was. On graduation day, 1970, I thought I had left Afghanistan behind forever and it had left me behind. But I was wrong, and suddenly my whole life took on a new cast. It wasn't that my previous story was false; it was subsumed into this larger story. I found myself dragged out of my privacy and onto various public stages to speak, inconceivably enough, for the voiceless Afghan people. It was now my duty to explain a culture that is my culture, and that I had spent my whole life arguing with.

All of which brought home to me that no life story unfolds in isolation. It's not just that every story is intertwined with so many others; but also, that all our stories are part of interlocking ever-larger stories, the history of our times. And as we puzzle out the shape of our individual narratives and make choices that affect its arc, we're also puzzling out the shape of the history we're a part of and contributing willy nilly, by action or inaction, in small ways or large, whether we choose to or not, to its shape.

When I was growing up in Afghanistan, we thought we knew the shape of our narrative history. Our school books, our teachers told us that the defining event of Afghan history was the British invasion and the War of Independence with the British. Actually, the defining event of Afghan history lay not in our past but in our near future, looming such a scant few years away that its shadow must have lain across us already, although none of us felt its chill until the curtain broke and Soviet troops came pouring through and the prisons filled up and the firing squads began their work and the intelligentsia fled and the countryside got littered with land mines and the Jihadists rose out of the villages. We never know what's coming up in the immediate future.

Here in America, we have some truisms about time. Letting go of the past is always a victory, living for the future is healthy, and the greatest wisdom is supposedly to be here now, live in the present. But no one can live in the past anyway, since the past is not our memories of it, just as the landscape is not the same as the map of it. And the future is where we never are. And the present moment, stripped of past and future, is a bubble that vanishes to nothing. Where can one live, then, if not in the past, present, or future?

I'm saying, live in the story of your life. Every moment contains where you're coming from and where you're going. In a novel, after all, though every sentence may be beautiful and every scene may have its own allure, you can't appreciate chapter 25 if you've forgotten chapters 1-24. The meaning of each moment-including this moment-is the place it holds in your entire arc.

What lifts any story to greatness, is not the particular events that constitute its plot but how the plot unfolds toward meaning, whether it becomes, finally, a unique expression of some universal theme of human existence. Yours could be an airport novel full of glitter and cliffhangers, quickly read and quickly forgotten; or it could be a deep lyrical meditation on love; or an epic testament to the capacity of the human spirit to rise above suffering; or some rollicking picaresque-who knows? And the story's never over till it's over: there's always another level of understanding to reach so long as you're alive and kicking. Only death releases you from the present moment to become your whole life. At every other moment, we're contributing to what that whole life will have been.

Let me leave you with an anecdote. When I was writing West of Kabul, East of New York, one of my cousins in Washington D.C. asked what my book was about and I said it was a memoir. She said, "What's a memoir?" I told her, "It's the story of my life." That astounded her. "The story of your life!" she fumed. "The story of your life? You were born in Afghanistan, you came to America, you married Debby, you bought a house, you wrote some books-that's the story of your life!" And you know, in a sense she was right. Those are indeed, the facts. But I learned something from that encounter, which I now pass on to all of you. Do not let someone else write the story of your life.

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