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Illustration by Lily Snowden-Fine


Globe and Mail columnist whose latest book, Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, arrived in bookstores this week

In my dreams , I am called upon. Not to lead an army or make enough cupcakes for the entire class picnic – no, nothing so worthy. In my dreams, I am called to give a commencement speech.

I know: sad! Feel free to say it together: How very sad. Who else would dream of standing on a podium in front of hundreds of recent graduates desperate to tear off their smelly rented gowns and ravage the first beer keg they see? Who else dreams of being asked by their university to return and scatter platitudes like cherry blossoms on the wind?

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I do, damn it. I do. Every spring, I watch in envy as the famous of the world, who do not need more free publicity, gather on leafy campuses around North America to spread their hard-won, common-sense insights. They are Johnny Appleseeds of folksy wisdom, tossing hard-earned wisdom from manicured fingers. Love! Fail! Grow! Grow to love failure!

Every spring my skepticism cowers in the back seat – normally it likes to drive – as I read famous people’s commencement speeches and admit to myself that they are right. Those bromides are bright with truth. Often I’m sobbing as I realize this. You’re right, George Saunders, when you say that a person’s goal in life should be, simply, to be kinder. And J.K. Rowling, I agree that there is no greater teacher than failure and no greater gift than imagination. Steve Jobs, you speak the truth when you say that you must follow your heart and your instincts – wait a second, Jobs. You’re a dropout! How the hell did you get to deliver a commencement address? Oh, right. You changed the landscape of the modern world.

Of all the commencement speeches that have been published in large print and stuffed into Christmas stockings around the world, none, to my mind, is greater than the one Nora Ephron delivered at her alma mater, Wellesley College, in 1996.

Ephron graduated in 1962, and she demonstrates how the world had changed by stating a few simple facts: There were five African-American women in her graduating class; the dorm-room door had to be left open six inches if a boy was in the room; six girls had been kicked out of college that year for “lesbianism.” Illegal abortions cost $500 and were performed without anaesthetic. In her speech, she threw some epic shade on the Disney-bright nostalgia that enveloped postwar America.

So much had happened in Ephron’s life since she graduated – the heartbreak that led to Heartburn, the brilliant essays, the screenplays for Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally and a dozen other films. It was a tornado of a life, and she embraced it. Her speech celebrated feminism, and accomplishment, and – my favourite part – the chaos and too-muchness of life. Here is what she says:

Maybe young women don’t wonder whether they can have it all any longer, but in case any of you are wondering, of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you.

Sometimes, when I’m walking or having a shower or talking to my imaginary boyfriend Keith Richards, who likes to bring biscotti when he visits, I imagine what my commencement speech would say. Would I talk about how it is vital to always carry a notebook and pen? I could mention Roald Dahl’s warning that “a thought unrecorded is a thought lost.” I could tell the anecdote about my trainwreck interview with a Very Important Man: As I sat down to record his thoughts, I realized that the only writing utensil in my purse was my toddler son’s Spider-Man pen, which squawked

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“With great power comes great responsibility!” every time it touched paper.

Graduates listen to President Barack Obama speak during a commencement ceremony at Barnard College in New York, May 14, 2012.

DOUG MILLS/The New York Times

Or perhaps I should talk about how the most important thing to look for in a mate is a similar tolerance for filth – or for freaks, a love of cleanliness. This, I feel, is the secret to marital bliss, and astonishingly unreported. A man who will run away screaming when he finds a desiccated mouse carcass stuck to the shag carpet under a pile of your dirty clothes is not a man who will stick around through life’s other crises. I discovered this the hard way. Conversely, a man who will whisk a coffee mug filled with moldy sunflower seed shells from your bedside table with no words further than “Good morning, baby” is a man you want holding your hand at the very end. When I found this man – there was only one left in the shop – I married him.

But filth and emergency preparedness are such little topics. The graduates of tomorrow – particularly the women, at whom this book is aimed – should be thinking about living large. Yes, that’s what I’d talk about, if only some enterprising college administrator would ask me to expound on the topic. What, you’d like to hear it anyway? Bless you. Bless you, my imaginary friend.

This is what I’d say:

Good afternoon, and welcome everyone on this beautiful afternoon. It’s so wonderful to be back on this campus after so many years. I was starting to think I’d been banned, it’s been so long! Not that I’m bitter at all, and I regret that email I sent the dean last year, truly. I’d been feverish for three days and was living on cough medicine and vodka.

It is a great honour and privilege to be with you here today. You’ve made it, and well done to all of you. You don’t have to listen to some ancient alumna drone on at you about boring historical events any longer – except for the next few minutes. Seriously, don’t try to leave. I’ve been waiting for this moment for decades. There are guards at all the exits.

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How little this campus has changed – that’s the tree we used to climb at the end of one-dollar draught night. And yet how much it’s changed. Do you see that building there? It used to be a women’s residence. The student newspaper carried a story about how the fire exits were kept locked because the administrators were more worried about boys getting in than women trapped by fire getting out. It’s true! What a crazy old world.

And that building over there – we used to be able to smoke inside. I smoked with a professor who had worked on Fleet Street and who told me I should never wear stripes because they made me look fat. He used to make the female students do spins for him, like we were fashion models. It’s true! What a strange old world it was.

I took that professor’s words to heart, for some strange reason. I went on a crash diet in my last year of school and lost 20 pounds by eating only Hickory Sticks and drinking only beer. It was not a hospital-certified diet. Of course, I was also diagnosed with a life-threatening, incurable disease at the same time, but who cared! I was thin, for once. I was the subject of admiring glances. I had shrunk myself, and therefore grown in attractiveness, and desirability. What strange mathematics this was, that I had never been taught!

Years later, while working as a newspaper reporter, I would sit across from a man who regularly shushed me. I know what you’re thinking: How am I standing here, delivering this commencement address, and not in prison for this man’s murder? It’s crazy! There were many days when I would open my mouth and he would frown at me across the desk divider and hold his finger to his lips, and I would think, I wonder if this stapler could kill a person? Or, Could this Diet Coke can be used to crack open a skull? And yet I never did. I was afraid of jail, my friends. And I was so young. I actually thought, in those days, that if I made myself smaller and quieter – if I reduced my footprint in the world – then I would be happier.

No, I lie. I didn’t think I would make myself happier. I thought I’d make the people around me happier. If only I were less lippy. If only my laugh were quieter. If only my boobs were smaller, perhaps men would stop talking to them. It would shrink the target, at least. If I had no opinions, no one could criticize me. Shrinking and hiding is an excellent defence strategy, as every prey animal knows.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”

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I did try, for a little while, to be smaller and quieter. It never lasted, though. I was too lazy. No one tells you the effort that is required in diminishment; it takes an enormous amount of energy to constrict yourself. Sometimes I like to think of those women in history and what they could have accomplished if their lungs weren’t compressed by corsets, their feet mangled to fit into tiny doll’s shoes. How they could have shouted. How they could have run.

So what I would like to say to you young women out there is: Be large. Be as large as you’d like to be. Take up the room that is yours. Spread into every crack and corner and wide plain of this magnificent world. Sit with your legs apart on the subway until a man is forced, politely, to ask you to slide over so he can have a seat. Get the dressing on the salad. Get two dressings. Order the ribs on a first date.

Throw away your scale. Stop weighing yourself. Is there ever a reason to know your precise weight? Are you mailing yourself to China? Are you a bag of cocaine? Enjoy your mass, for one day you will be old and as shrivelled as an apple doll, and you will wonder where the rest of you went. Wear a tiny bathing suit, even if the sales clerk raises her eyebrow when you try it on. Especially if she raises her eyebrow. Wear a small dress on your large self.

Be loud, in your head and in public. In meetings, speak first and resist the temptation to preface every statement with “This may have already been brought up …” When a colleague tries to interrupt, hold up a hand and say, “I’ll be finished making my point shortly, Bob,” and try not to picture what he’d look like with a stapler embedded in his forehead.

Laugh as loudly as you’d like during movies and live performances. Do not put your hand over your mouth. You aren’t vomiting or letting the devil in. You’re laughing. It is a sign of approval, like undoing your pants after a particularly fine meal.

Take up all the space. It is your space. There will be people who try to drive you from it, with catcalls or derision, with mockery and disapproval. These things diminish them, not you. Do not allow yourself to be diminished. Expand like a flower, like a heated gas, like a beautiful rising loaf. Expand into yourself, and never apologize for it.

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And for the young men in the crowd, who already know by some strange alchemy how to be large and expansive, I would say this: Let your sisters in this world grow, too, and do not consider their growth to be a diminishment of yours. The world is not a zero-sum game, and there is cake enough for everyone. Be the bigger man, and welcome the bigger woman.

That’s all I have to say today. I want to wish you all a large and happy future.

Excerpted from Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Renzetti. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto.

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