President Strikwerda with honorary doctorate recipients Mark Samels (l) & Al Koch (r).

Elizabethtown College Commencement, May 17, 2014: "Wounds and Mercies"

Mark Samels, Executive Producer of "AMERICAN EXPERIENCE"

I want to thank President Strikwerda and everyone at Elizabethtown for this great honor, and for the opportunity to say a few words to you, the Class of 2014, and those proud people here with you today.

It’s nice to be back in central Pennsylvania. I worked for a while in Harrisburg at a wonderful public television station, WITF. My wife Debra is actually from here. Her father was raised on a farm outside Carlisle. Her mother grew up in Hershey, where her grandmother worked at the chocolate factory.

Before I left to come here, she gave me some advice: “Don’t start your speech with a quote. It’s unoriginal, and lame.”

Debra couldn’t be here today.

The following quote is from a contemporary novelist, Colum McCann:

We are built on the wounds and mercies of the past: everywhere we are…is everywhere we have been .

We are built on the wounds and mercies of the past: everywhere we are…is everywhere we have been .

It’s poetic—wounds and mercies—and the meaning seems clear. The past shapes us—as nations, communities, families, individuals. We have been “built” by forces outside ourselves: social trends, political upheaval, economic collapse.  By chance, by luck, by fate.

But where does that leave us? What role do we play in creating our lives? What about our choices, our mistakes, our achievements, our dreams? What will shape the path ahead of you, Class of 2014?

* * * * *

I went to college planning to major in mathematics, but was soon drawn by filmmaking. In my junior year, a professor walked into class one day and asked if anyone was interested in making a documentary about hearing-impaired children. A group of parents had called up, offering a little bit of funding for the project. A friend and I raised our hands.

Over the next year, my life was consumed with producing that film. My grades plummeted. For one class, I only attended the final exam. Fortunately, it was “Intro to Meteorology.” No offense, meteorologists.

I threw myself into shooting, writing and editing the film. Finally, after nearly a year, it was finished. We held a screening in a theater on campus for the parents and their kids. I stood in the back, too nervous to sit.

When the lights came up, there was an eerie silence. I walked to the front to say a few words, and saw that many of the parents were in tears. We had captured the struggles of their children, they said, and their own as well.

It was a transforming moment for me. I had been bit by the filmmaking bug, and had to find a way to do it again.

Later, I thought about how random it had been, my professor asking for volunteers that day. How lucky. Fate had sent me a mercy

* * * * *

A few years later, a company making a wildlife film was looking for a cameraman. The catch was that you had to live on a marsh for six months, from winter to fall.  I leaped at the chance.

The marsh was home to a pair of sandhill cranes.  Cranes are large, majestic birds. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs and mate for life, returning every year to the same nesting spot.

The owner of the marsh showed me where the cranes had always built their nest. He was a wildlife artist who had done many paintings of cranes. But he had never witnessed the most magical of crane behaviors: the mating dance, where a pair call out and swirl around each other and suddenly leap ten feet off the ground, flapping their enormous wings. I had to find a way to film the mating dance.

So high on some scaffolding, I built a camera platform overlooking the nesting site. It was about the size of a dorm room, with a roof and windows, a heater and a cooler of food, a chair and a foam mattress. The artist called it my “crane hotel,” and shook his head.

One day in February, I heard cranes calling overhead. A pair flew down over the nesting site, circled once, then flew off and disappeared.  

My “crane hotel” was a disaster. It was nice for me, but too much for the cranes. I considered quitting right there. But I just couldn’t.

The next day I set off across the marsh in search of the cranes. Finally, I spotted them.  They were building a nest, several miles from their old site. I came back with a small canvas tent and my film camera.  It was cold and wet and miserable. But the cranes seemed just fine. 

A few days later, the ice had melted and a low sun raked across the golds and blues of the marsh. Suddenly, I heard a racket. The two cranes were calling to each other, spinning around and jumping high into the air. The mating dance had begun. I turned on the camera.

Later, I learned it was the first time the mating dance of sandhill cranes had been captured on film.

I’d been so wounded that day when the cranes disappeared. So humbled. Now they had danced before my camera. How lucky. What a mercy.

* * * * *

After that, my career was a roller coaster. The first five years of our marriage, Debra and I lived apart for three years, as I went off in search of work.  I applied for dozens of positions, and still have a notebook full of rejection letters.

But I gradually learned the craft of filmmaking: how to shoot, edit, record sound; how to produce, direct, and raise money; how to make your own film.

Eventually, I found work in New York as a producer for a weekly TV magazine show about Japan. Things went well until three weeks before Christmas, when the executive producer came over from Japan and fired the whole staff.

All I could think of was what to tell my wife. That was on my mind as I got into the elevator and realized the executive producer was there. He asked me if I was interested in coming to Japan and starting the show up again. I was. The elevator door opened and two months later I was in Tokyo.

You know what’s coming.  What a wound to be fired.  What a mercy to then be hired.
* * * * *

Finally, this moment.  I was working at WITF when I got a call from the executive producer of American Experience in Boston. She had seen my work, and asked me to come up for an interview. We met at an Italian restaurant. I really expected to add another page to my rejection notebook, so I was relaxed. I ordered the coniglio—roasted rabbit.

She called a few weeks later and offered me the job. Later, I asked her why she had picked me out of all the applicants. She said my qualifications were good and she liked the enthusiasm I showed for my work. But what had really impressed her was my ordering the rabbit. It was so unexpected, so unconventional, she said. She liked that.

There was no wound before this mercy. But it seemed to fit the same story—how we are “built” by forces outside of us.

* * * * *

I no longer think that. About my life, or anyone else’s.

Sure, there are unforeseen events: a random phone call; rejections—by people and even birds; offers that come out of the blue. But looking back, I now see there was more to the story.

There was someone who raised a hand; who walked across the marsh in the wet and cold; who lived apart from the person I loved most; who refused to give in, who stubbornly pursued a passion, and who finally, after many years, was comfortable enough with themselves to order what they wanted.

You, too, will experience such moments; maybe you already have. What will enable you to overcome your wounds is the same as what will allow you to be grateful for your mercies.  It is what is inside of you. It is who you are. In other words, everywhere you are going is everything you are.

The path we are on is like a road that reaches an intersection, with the crossroads marked “Wounds” and “Mercies.” Suddenly, we are deflected down one street or the other. It is up to us then to walk to the next intersection, and the next.

The past does shape our path. Everywhere we are is everywhere we have been. But we walk that path, and in doing so change it. We take our wounds, we order the rabbit, and then one day we look out and see the cranes dancing.

* * * * *

“Whatever you do,” Debra urged, “don’t end with a quote. That is the lamest thing of all.”

She couldn’t be here today.

But she’s right.

Thank you, and congratulations Class of 2014.