Chancellor, Madam President, Honored Guests, Graduates, Family and Friends
First, I want to express my gratitude to the University of British Columbia. I canít begin to tell you how astonished and delighted I was to receive Dr. Piperís letter last Fall informing me of the Senateís decision to confer this honour on me. I was born in Vancouver, raised in Kerrisdale, adjacent to the endowment lands, and I graduated from UBC, all of which make this recognition particularly special and meaningful. As a young boy, UBC had a strong pull for me. I used to bike through the trails of what is now called Pacific Spirit Park to the old farm at the eastern end of the campus. While the barn and animals have disappeared and the ground is now covered by playing fields and residences, this has always been a great landscape to explore. As I grew up, I had all sorts of dreams about the things I would do when I got here, from mixing concoctions in chemistry labs to playing sports to discovering the mysteries of Wreck Beach; none of those dreams, by the way, included making this speech. UBC has a special place in my heart, as Iím sure it does in yours.
Next, I want to congratulate the graduates and their families. All those receiving degrees have achieved something quite profound. Although it may not seem so at the moment, what you have endured and accomplished is of major significance. But if I remember my own feelings correctly, after my last exam in fourth year I simply felt enormous relief and a keen and unquenchable desire to party. I imagine most of you feel that way as well, so I shall keep this speech brief.
When I was asked if Iíd be willing to deliver a few inspiring words at Congregation, I agreed, and then thought, my God, what will I say. I must confess that I feel neither old enough nor wise enough to contemplate giving anyone advice. And for any writer, the idea of delivering a speech to an audience of a few hundred people, English and music graduates in particular, is a daunting and humbling task. But then, I argued, I have six months in which to prepare this speech. No problem. Immediately I fell victim to Ghandiís wonderful insight, "There is more to life than increasing its speed." So, as I did in my student days, I embraced two of my favorite adages, "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?" and, with a slight modification, "Weíll get to that bridge when we have to cross it." Or as the Irish proverb says, "When God made time, He made plenty of it."
At 1:30 in the morning on May 1st, the eve of my thirty-third wedding anniversary and only twenty-one days before this occasion, I was once again adding notes to the many beginnings I had written for this address. Alas, I realized this was all I had: several beginnings, only the hint of a middle, and not an inkling of a conclusion. So I offer you my beginnings, which it occurs to me is the significance behind this occasion in the first place. Completing your degree is not an end to something, but rather the beginning. As much as this honorary doctorate recognizes my past contribution, it also initiates a new stage in my life. New writing projects continue to present different challenges.
I started the publishing company, Oolichan Books, in 1974, printed the first four titles myself, and in the Spring of 1975 set off by train with thirteen cartons of books for Calgary. One of the four new titles was the first poetry title by the novelist Robert Kroetsch. My plan was to follow him on a reading tour across the prairies, from Calgary to Winnipeg. He would fly, I would drive with my newly minted stock of titles. But the journey began with a one night stopover in Calgary where I slept on a bed in Bobís study. Tacked to the wall was a chart or map of his new novel, what was to become What The Crow Said. This metre by two metre sheet of paper was divided into forty-nine squares, seven rows of seven. Into one of these squares, he had written the word "doubt" in big, bold letters. A few other unreadable notes had been scribbled into other squares, but it was doubt that stood out and under which I slept. Through the night the word shouted out at me, as it did for the remainder of a successful sales trip. We sold out of his book. And doubt became the basis of a lifelong credo, for doubt lets the chaos in, and when you let chaos in you are no longer bound by other peopleís expectations or limited by what you know. Artists like Schonberg and Beckett understood this. Doubt is the source of our honesty. It is what defines our originality. If certainty kills hope, doubt legitimizes it, thus allowing us to live, as the Italian writer Calvino once wrote, in the "best of impossible worlds." Doubt combined with a sense of humour is a pretty good recipe for confronting the world we live in. As Victor Borge said, "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people."
I have spent a life in language, as someone who collaborates, as a teacher, editor, writer and reader. As a teacher, I got paid to read books I loved and to talk to people like yourselves about them. What a privilege! As a writer, I got to scribble down ideas and experiences and to share them with other people. And as a publisher, I got to edit books by people whose work I admire. In other words, everything Iíve done in my life has been a collaboration for which all those other participants in my life, in particular my wife, Pat, my daughter Nicole and son Owen, who is graduating here today, deserve equal recognition. What a gift! Iíve been able to combine the passions of avocation with the responsibilities of a vocation. I think we are truly blessed when we are able to blur the lines between work and play, when we are able to do what we love and love what we do. Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer, said in an interview, "I write because I want more people to love me." The honesty and simplicity of this statement is echoed in the short poem written by Raymond Carver at the end of his life. "And did you get what/you wanted from this life, even so?/I did./And what did you want?/ To call myself beloved, to feel myself/ beloved on the earth."
May you find this blessing, this joy in your own lives.
Let me leave you with this one final thought: The human imagination is only capable of conceiving the possible. Thank you and good luck.