Delivered to the graduates of UTSC on June 11, 2018
Hello U of T Scarborough! It is with great honour to stand before you today as you begin your journey as hardworking citizens of the world.
It is at times like this that a person of renown is supposed to give you a speech, and usually this person will begin their speech with a quote from another person of equal or greater renown that is supposed to inspire you. Maybe now would be the time I would sprinkle in a little bit of Gandhi or MLK or Oprah wisdom.
Instead of sounding like one of those inspirational posters on the wall of your dentist’s office (assuming you even have the funds to visit a dentist after living as a student), I will begin my speech with something most likely said by you this morning, maybe while brushing your teeth or putting on your regalia: “Holy cow. I’m graduating but what the heck am I going to do? What was the point of all this? Why did I think I would have everything figured out by now? Why do I have more questions than answers?” Perhaps I misquoted you. I will allow you, in the interest of the delicate disposition of those in academia, to edit this quote — in your head and not out loud– adding whatever curse words you actually used. You’re probably wondering, “How is it possible that this Brown woman from Scarborough knows my feelings of dread? Is she magic? Does she have superhuman powers?”
The reason why I know that feeling of dread is because I was once where you are now. Let Auntie Catherine tell you a little story. It was back in a time long, long ago called the 90s. People were doing a dance called the Running Man. Waists were high. Hair was higher. And a bottle of Snapple only cost 90 cents. I graduated from Ryerson Theatre School with the core belief that I was going to be an actor. There was no other choice. I was going to be successful. I was going to be famous. I was so hell bent on this vision of myself that I didn’t even attend my own graduation ceremony, I was too busy already working as an actor.
I began my career, working heavily in film and television and for a while I believed that my dreams had come true. This is what the universe had planned for me. Then, after a couple of years into the hustle, I could hear this voice inside of me emerging. It kept saying “Really? Is this your dream? Being treated like a pretty girl who says 2-3 lines on a television show? Sitting in a trailer waiting for someone to instruct you? Not having an artistic voice?” This terrified me. Turning my back on my dreams meant that the many years of training I had devoted to acting would have been a waste of time. But still, this voice kept coming at me telling me to write down my thoughts on paper napkins, on the backs of horrible television show scripts. I kept writing.
Then I began writing plays. My first play, Singkil, was nominated for 7 Dora awards including best new play in 2007. I thought to myself that this was the detour that the universe had in store for me. This is what the universe had planned for me. I was meant to be a playwright, and all those years being an actor had not gone to waste. But then life happened. My beautiful daughter happened. A string of abusive relationships happened. Next thing I know, I am homeless with my daughter, back in Scarborough.
I still remember seeking emergency housing with my parents and my sister, sitting next to a shopping cart full of our meagre belongings wondering how the hell did I get back to square one? How did I let this detour ruin me? Where the hell was the universe and its plans?
I started a home daycare with my savings. It was an excellent job for a single mom. But it meant being paid peanuts, being treated like crap by the kids’ parents (save for the last few families I serviced) and saying goodbye to the arts. Or so I thought.
While owning a daycare, I was confronted over and over again with the narrative of Scarborough as a community that was refusing to be undone, of a community full of resilience and love. I had to put pen to paper. I wrote my novel, Scarborough, before dawn when the children would be dropped off at my door, during nap times, and after dinner. I kept writing.
The same month I launched the book was the same month I closed the home daycare and the same month I became Artistic Director of b current performing arts. The book has since won the Jim Wong-Chu Award, was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards, the Trillium Book Awards and longlisted for Canada Reads. It is almost in its 4th printing and has been translated into French. I now live a life that is full of art and thrives on my own voice.
Now I could say that this was the detour the universe had in store for me, and that I was meant to be a novelist. Instead, I choose to say that my life is a constant detour. After surviving homelessness, chronic illness, abuse, rape, what I can tell you is that life is not about arriving at these preconceived dots on a graph that flow in a linear fashion across a crisp white page. Nor is life about ups and downs. It’s about sitting at a crossroads and receiving teachings every day. And guess what? Where you are at now is called a crossroads. While the image of such a place is often negative, or connotes confusion or stagnation, to me, a crossroads is actually a place of great promise, of great choice.
Now you’re probably saying “Ugh! What is with this lady? First she ruins the solemnity of convocation speeches, and then she tells me I’m at a crossroads! Why couldn’t they hire some cooler Scarberian to do this, like the Weeknd or any member of the Barenaked Ladies?” But I want you to remember what I am saying, most especially when you are rolling on the floor crying your eyes out, wishing your apprenticeship paid well enough for you to make your rent:
Sit in uncertainty. I mean that. Really sit with it. Don’t fight it. Don’t try and author into being a success story that isn’t yours. Let it guide you. What does your anxiety about the future tell you about your true path?
Are you realizing that making it to this fictitious finish line isn’t giving you any more certainty? That’s okay. You’ve learned so much during your time at school and it will come in handy in the future. Trust that the universe has your back.
Are you realizing you’ve been living someone else’s vision of your future? That’s okay. It’s good to know now how you pander to authority. Now that you know your pattern, you can change it. This is your opportunity to ask yourself what your deepest desires are.
Are you realizing that your time at school was spent seeking for structure and not satisfying genuine curiosity about the world? That’s okay. Now is the time to figure out how to enforce structures in your own life so that you can achieve what you want to achieve without someone looking over your shoulder. It’s your opportunity to grow up.
Are you still committed to realizing your dream but uncertain about how to get there? That’s okay. Trust that in your crossroads you will encounter so many people out there willing to mentor you towards success.
No matter what, you should be hella proud of yourself. You made it this far. Give yourself a round of applause if you had to organize babysitting, had to work at your mom and pop shop, had to support your siblings, had to hustle up the most humiliating part-time jobs, lost people along the way, and numerous other things you had to do that were unspoken and unwitnessed. You’ve made it to the crossroads. Congratulations.
My point is, you have not arrived. As much as your regalia celebrates this supposed arrival, you have not finished learning. You will keep learning. Even if you are unwilling to learn, believe me, life will continue teaching you in a series of unforgiving, blessed lessons. Sit in your uncertainty, never stop receiving the grace of the universe from every direction. Keep being a student in life. The crossroads is a beautiful place.