Oh, and Wear Sunscreen

Let us toast the graduates.

Tomas and I have lots of nieces and nephews. A couple of the nephews have long since passed their high school graduations and grown into remarkable men. They'll both be getting married this year and while my heart pangs a little, it's not with sadness. There's pride in knowing we're gaining two more women in our family, each lovely and funny in their own right.

One niece is finishing college in a few days, becoming a nurse. She's made her own way, something she's always done, showing serious grit even as a small girl. Now she's a woman, caring and compassionate with people and a small brood of animals she's adopted on a farm. We're so happy for her, knowing she deserves all the best life has to give.

And then there's another niece, the eldest of our southern faction. She's graduating from high school today, ready to step into the hectic world of university life this fall. She'll leave the beautiful noise of her family home for the chaos of the dormitory and all its new experiences.

I must confess to a little nostalgia.

For leaving high school and one's family home is the first big step to self-discovery, in my opinion. Gone are the safety nets and preconceived notions of who you are, what you might be.

But before I get carried away, I need a name for our high school graduate. Remember, everyone gets a name here. I shall call her Maia.

Maia will be hearing a lot of words today. It's graduation. Commencement. What's the difference?

The Oxford Dictionary states that graduation is the receiving of an academic diploma, or the ceremony at which it is conferred. Commencement is a beginning or start.

As Maia listens to all the words coming her way (and reads a few too), I hope she considers which definition might have driven each message. I think she'll be able to tell the difference if she thinks about it. Do they come from a place of beginnings or endings? The birth of a new start or the recognition of something finished?

Either scenario can be reason for celebration. But one person might fill you with hopeful optimism, eager to propel you on your path with starry ideals and gilded dreams. The other will surely congratulate you, but may caution your giddy sense of achievement. They might say the world is large, life is unfair, and while it's good you've done this, it's only a beginning. A prerequisite really, if you're to succeed in this world.

They're probably right.

But I say to hell with that. What if they're not?

Selfishly, I decided to give my own words of wisdom, such as they are, to my dearest niece. So without further ado:

To Maia,

1. Consider the source.  Not just for research papers. Consider, as you move through life and listen to other people, who they are. Read, watch, and listen with a critical eye. Not a cynical one, but do be aware. Consult the experts.  Then make your own decisions. And always, always trust yourself.

2. It's better to be happy than right. There will come a day when you're arguing with someone, likely someone you care about a great deal or you wouldn't be arguing. Stop and ask yourself if you'd rather be happy or right. More importantly, ask yourself if you prefer being right more than their happiness.

3. Say yes to joy. When something brings you joy, especially in its purest form, always welcome it. Don't let anyone make you feel self-conscious or embarrassed by it. Revel in it. Steep yourself in it. Never apologize for it. Don't deny what delights you.

4. Say no to those that try to make you less. Sometimes people will try to make you feel embarrassed or self-conscious about yourself (or things you love). They may make fun of you or be mean to you. They may even attempt to degrade you. Do not compete to find their level. Walk away from them. They too have their story, so have compassion in your heart. But do not make time for someone that tries to push you down in order to pull themselves up.

5. See the world in shades of gray.  Be kind. Not much is as it first appears. Withhold your judgments. Meet new and different people from yourself; talk with them. We are all so much alike, even in our diversity. Teach your heart true compassion. Through knowledge and experience, learn the power of empathy. Always expect the best of people. It is better to be disappointed occasionally than to underestimate somebody. You never know when someone needs just one other person to have faith in them.

6. See yourself in black and white.  Hold yourself to the highest standards. Be proud of who you are and how you conduct yourself. Don't compartmentalize. Don't think something is okay when it's not. Don't justify or rationalize things that are wrong. When you're confused, ask yourself, "What's the right thing to do?" Or, "What's the path of least regret?" Often, the answer is easier than we make it.

7. Learn how to forgive.  Not just others, but yourself too. Because you won't always make the right decisions. In fact, you may fail at something really important. But you must forgive yourself and the sooner you do so, the better. Then, move forward. Despite predictions of doom and disaster, most things simply do not kill us. Learn the lesson. Forgive yourself. Do better.

8. Be a little morbid.  Some things can kill us, so forgive me but I must issue my standard warning here. Keep yourself alive. Try to keep the people around you alive. Don't do anything that a split second of thought wouldn't change from a lifetime of regret for you and everyone else. We can fix anything, anything but death.

9. Have no fear.  Otherwise, be fearless. Nothing good is born of fear. It cripples and steals from us. If fear had its way, life would be struck down, stunted into some misshapen, grotesque parody of itself. It would crawl along, scared to look up into the wonder of what might have been.  Don't make decisions based on fear. Instead, make yourself uncomfortable. Be brave. When you're scared, practice telling the stories of your magnificent, bold life.

10. Don't worry. It's true what they say: most things we worry about never happen. The things that do never give us any warning, they simply strike us when we're least expecting it. It's a waste of energy to worry. If you're focusing on other people, what they have or don't, what they did or didn't and you're comparing it all to yourself and calling it worry; well, don't do that either. You can tell yourself you're worried about fairness, karma, or some such thing. But you're really worried someone might get something you won't.

11. There is enough. Someone else's success doesn't prevent yours. If they make money, it doesn't mean you won't. If they get a great job, you can too. Because there is enough to go around. There is a sea of love, money, success and opportunity out there. Go get it. You will have to work your ass off. Don't waste your time thinking how hard everyone else is working, or not working. It doesn't matter. Be square with who you are, how you live. Everyone else is on their own. And remember, they have their own story, their own reasons.

12. Success is many things. Don't handicap yourself by using one yardstick, like money. Fulfill yourself, every part of you. Even though you're young, think big. What will your legacy be? What do you want people to say about you? How do you want people to see you, describe you? Be that, live that, starting now.

13. Know yourself.  Don't be afraid to be alone. You are never alone; you have yourself. Get familiar with who you are, your likes and dislikes. Know yourself as well as you'd know any friend or lover. While your beliefs and concerns will flex with the rhythms of your life,  take this time to learn who you are, inside. Don't just stand against things; make sure you know what you stand for. These truths will give you an unshakable confidence as you move forward into your future.

14. Dream big now, dream bigger later. You have no concept of your untapped potential. It's hard to imagine what's out there for you. For now, it's enough to find your legs. Go out into the world and breathe deeply. Inhale possibility. Look around, go to your boundaries, venture forth. And when you're comfortable with what you find, go further. Never stop learning. Listen to new music. Talk to people. Always have a new dream for yourself, no matter how small it may seem. After all, as my mother used to say to me, what else is there to do?

15. Be a builder.  Choose to build people up rather than tear them down. Be that person. Yes, life is hard, Maia. Those people, the ones that say so, are right. But I suggest everyone finds this out all on their own. Painfully. Don't be the person that feels the need to say it. Instead, choose to build people up. You might find that doing so helps them far more than any warning could. Besides, taking away another person's hope or happiness only serves to chip away yours, too.

And with that, I've come to the end of my words. Or nearly so.

Most of all, have fun, Maia. Your time here, this messy, glorious life, is the miracle.

Know you are loved.

You always have someone you can call, no matter what.

You always have someone you can come to, or who will come for you.

You have someone in your corner, rooting you on.

Now go forth. I can't wait to see what happens.

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