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Peeks & Piques!
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ART TIMES Jan/Feb 2006

TWENTY OR SO years ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at a High School Honor Society annual induction ceremony and readily agreed to do so. Almost immediately after I accepted, however, I was at a loss for a topic. For one thing, I had never been in an Honor Society myself and was not even sure what being a member of one might signify. Being a writer, I rather predictably turned to my handy Oxford Dictionary to see what it had to say about ‘honor’. Well, as some of you probably already know, there are more than a few pages on the subject. As I browsed, I struggled for a “talking point” and eventually reasoned that if I had to go through all that trouble then perhaps I ought to just speak about the word itself. Just what would the concept of ‘honor’ mean to my audience of young people and their parents? So, there I was, facing an auditorium full of teen-agers and adults, all looking up at me expectantly for whatever words of wisdom I was about to impart. “Honor”, I said to the sea of faces, and paused. “What do we mean by ‘honor’?” I asked — rhetorically, or course. And then I sailed in. I told them that I was a writer who wrote about art and artists. How did I choose which ones to write about? “Those,” I said sagely, “who honored their own vision.” I pointed out that we ‘honored’ such artists as Rembrandt, van Gogh, da Vinci, etc., because they were people who, presumably, ‘honored’ their own intuitions and insights. The same with Mozart, Shakespeare, Charlemagne, and Jesus. “We honor them,” I said, “because they honored themselves.” Another pause (pregnant). “And us? Who are we told to ‘honor’? We’re admonished to ‘honor’ God, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our flag, our religion — nearly everyone and everything other than ourselves.” Squirming in the parents’ section. “How many teachers told you to forget about looking up toward the front of the room or into textbooks and to look for your answers inside yourself?” More squirming, now from the teacher’s section. “How many teachers — or parents — taught us how we ought to go about ‘honoring’ ourselves by looking inside?” Now the kids were beginning to wonder what it meant to be part of an ‘honor society.’ So, time for a little humor. I told them about the Woody Allen shtick where he tells about wrapping himself in a bed sheet and going as a ghost to a Hallowe’en party. On the way, he gets caught up in a KKK march and soon finds himself unmasked by the group. Threatened with immediate death, Allen said that his life started to flash before his eyes. He remembered getting up early in the morning to let the cows out of the barn and feeding the pigs and chickens. Then, as he recalled walking the country lanes to the one-room schoolhouse, he suddenly remembered that he was born in Manhattan! Somebody else’s life was flashing before his eyes! Laughter from a few quarters. “And how about us?” I then said. “Whose life is going to flash before our eyes when we die? Will it really be ours? Or the life our teachers, ministers, parents, and leaders told us we should live?” Squirming again. “How many of your parents,” I asked — again rhetorically — “look forward to Mondays? Are they living lives and doing work that they chose? Or are they living the lives and doing the work that others told them they ought to live and work at?” Heads nodding, now. Kids and parents. “Who told them to be accountants, doctors, electricians, truck drivers, and grocery clerks? Isn’t this America? Aren’t we free to choose? Why don’t we look forward to Mondays?” Yeah, why? I hear them asking themselves — not rhetorically — in their own heads. “So,” I ask quietly, “why haven’t we been told — and taught — how to ‘honor’ ourselves? Tonight you young people are being inducted into a society that proclaims to ‘honor’ honor. Live up to your task and begin by ‘honoring’ yourselves. But be careful here. “Self” is not the concocted bundle of desires, dreams, hopes, plans, beliefs, and opinions that we have incidentally picked up during our lifetimes, but that eternal and unchangeable center that resides within every human being. It is surely not the ego-indulgent and fickle “person” who passes as “you” from day to day. “Self” is the genuine ‘you’ that existed before it was twisted out of shape by the accidents of your birth into a particular family, town, state, country, or continent. “Self” is that still voice that lies within. So, be ‘honorable’ to the real you and ‘honor’ those who do the same for themselves. If they don’t know how to go about it, help them. In fact, why not go out into the world and make us all ‘honorable’? It certainly would make the world a lot better place to live, wouldn’t it?” Clapping. “I know I’d appreciate it. For starters, I’d probably find a lot more artists to write about.”


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