Commencement speech from a twenty-something

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It’s unlikely I will be speaking to a stadium full of eager students preparing to graduate anytime soon. But, as ceremonies near and party planning ensues, I can’t help but think about what advice I might share with the next generation if given the chance. What would I talk about?

What experiences could I possibly have had this early in life that would lend a hand to those about to enter the next step in their lives?

To the class of 2012:

In 2009, the late Steve Jobs told students at Stanford the only way to be truly satisfied in life is to do great work. President John F. Kennedy shared the importance of attitude during his speech during a graduation ceremony at American University in 1962 and in 2007; Oprah Winfrey used her own story to encourage students at Howard University to dream big.

I certainly don’t have the experiences of these prominent figures. Nor, do I have their influence. But, what I do have are my own lessons, and if choosing the most important learned since high school, it would be the ability to value change.

Most of you have probably experienced change in your lifetime in one way or another. You may have moved schools; you can now drive; you changed jobs – I did too. But, what I didn’t do was appreciate the change. After leaving the comfort zone you call high school, there will be times you feel awkward or uncomfortable. That’s OK. Embrace it.

If attending college, you will likely change your major, your living space, your wardrobe and hopefully your bed sheets. Change a diaper while you’re at it; you will thank me later for having that experience.

And, if you decide to move out of your parent’s house, your taste buds will change, too. Peanut butter and jelly on hamburger buns will become a staple food in your life in effort to save a few extra pennies.

Throughout the years, you will be surprised at the number of times you change your mind; becoming in touch with the person you never knew you were. Old friends may become distant memories and simple schedule may seem like an oxymoron.

But, while you’re riding the rollercoaster of life, remember who you are at the core and never let that change.

Because with change comes growth and as you learn more about yourself, it will become clearer how you can change the world.

Congratulations.

Everything but the Kitchen

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I walked up to the big, intimidating brown door, carrying a pan of warm apple crisp dessert as its sticky juices leaked out the sides onto my hands. Christmas music played loudly behind me; young children laughing and skating circles on a small ice rink under bright lights and the moon.

As I approached the building, I noticed something. The window wrapping the front of the door was shattered. The glass was broken, but not enough to cause an opening. 

Gulp. 

There was a part of me wanting to turn around, get back in my car and drive safely home. But, I signed up for this and knew it would be an eye-opening experience. I was right.

After reaching the front door, I peered through the window. A young woman made eye contact and walked over to open the door for me. I smiled, introduced  myself and nervously asked to be directed where I might set down my leaking dish. An older gentleman walked down a hallway towards us and kindly showed me the way. But, moments later I learned I would need to first walk through a large gym before getting to the kitchen.

One big room, 25 mattresses; just as you see in the movies. Every mattress was accompanied by a notebook piece of paper torn from a tablet and taped above each pillow, labeled with a corresponding number. Women of all ages – young, old, crippled, healthy – sat on the mattresses, walked around the room, sang to each other or simply sat at one of the long tables set up nearby.

Bed Time...

As I weaved my way through the mattresses lined up on the tiled floor, I noticed some of the women gathered in a corner of the room. Piquing my interest, I stared long enough to see what they were doing. A volunteer sat in a chair as the women took turns having their fingernails painted.

“You look beautiful,” the volunteer said after finishing painting for one of the women.

I made my way to the kitchen, helped set up a buffet-style table of food and grabbed a cup of coffee.

One of the women quickly ran up to me, eager to hand me a brown paper bag.

“Would you like to read this?” she said, holding up a local newspaper with a square photo of her pictured in black and white on the front page. “One of the stories is about me and the path I’m on to make a better life.”

“Yes, I would love to take a look,” I said, smiling.

“There’s something else in the bag that’s a bit more personal, if you’d like to see,” she said.

Hesitant, I opened the bag and reached in to pick up a yellow piece of fabric.

“Would you like me to take it out of the bag?” I asked, unsure if the item was too personal for the rest in the room to see.

She nodded her head yes.

I picked up and unfolded the item, which I quickly recognized as an extra-large macaroni and cheese colored t-shirt covered in words and images, hand written with a black permanent marker. I fumbled the shirt a bit, so she snatched it out of my hand and held it up for me to see more clearly. The front of the shirt read “We are a family and we still love you”.

I nodded.

Tshirt #1 - Complete

She rotated the shirt, showing me the backside. My stomach dropped as I saw four little faces drawn on the fabric, and above the image, the words “If you love us, why do you make us black and blue?”.

I nodded again, unsure how to respond to a message so clear, yet so disturbingly sad.

She told me she made the t-shirt in therapy as a way to help her cope with life and start on the right path. As she placed the t-shirt back into the bag, a tall authoritative woman walked into the large room and signaled for everyone to gather in the middle of the room.

Without speaking, all of the women and volunteers (including myself) gathered between the mattresses and the tables and held hands. The woman who seemed to have authority began saying a prayer.

“Thank you Lord for bringing us together to a warm place tonight. Please bless this food and show us your grace through fellowship and the meeting of new friends. In God’s name we pray, Amen.”

How cool, I thought.

I, along with four other volunteers, took our position behind the long table with food. The women lined up single file on the other side of the table — plates in hand and manner in tact. We served our homemade chicken pot pie, garden salad and warm apple crisp and they thanked us for each serving.

“This smells so good,” one woman said.

“A home cooked meal is just what I need right now,” another said.

The women ate their meals while sharing fellowship. The dishes were empty, all food gone. I grabbed another cup of coffee and sat down at one of the tables.

What can I possibly say to these women? I’ve never been homeless. And, while I’ve had extensive training and experience working with women involved in domestic violence, I’ve fortunately never had to experience it myself.

“How was the food?” I asked, feeling a little out of place.

All of the women at the table smiled and shook their heads as if approving of the meal.

And then it hit me – I was no different from these women. I am human and so are they. Our experiences should not define our being, who we are or who we hope to be someday.

“How was your day?” I asked the woman sitting next to me.

“Difficult,” she answered, attempting to ignore me.

“Well, it’s good to know you have a full stomach of good food.”

“Well yes, but I’d like my own kitchen and be able to cook for myself again. It’s hard being homeless. It’s heavy on your heart and your mind.”

I didn’t have a response and sat silent for a moment.

“Where are you all from?” I asked, seeking conversation.

One woman grew up in Ohio and another in South Carolina. I shared with these women, while now in North Carolina that I too was an “outsider”. I had recently moved to the state from Michigan less than one year ago with my husband and 15 month-old daughter.

“They were interested to hear more about my little girl and share with me stories about their own children.

“Guess how many children I have,” one of them said. I responded with a confused look and asking, “how many?”.

“Ten,” she answered, lowering her head as if it hurt to talk about them.

“I have four kids,” said the other woman – the one who had shared her personal item with me earlier in the evening.

“But…I haven’t seen them since 1997,” she said. “They are what keeps me going each day. I know I will see them again, but it’s about taking life one step at a time and I’m focusing on that.”

I instantly felt sadness and looked over at the woman next to me who had just shared she is a mother of ten. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked up.

“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said.

“You’re welcome; it’s a way for me to help myself, too. I am amazed when anything I do or say actually means something to another person.”

How true. And while I’m not sure if anything I said that night made a difference to those women, I left with an appreciation for my family, a warm home and for my very own kitchen –  used to make sticky apple crisp for new friends on a Friday night.

Have a Little Faith

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By now you’ve probably already started playing the tune of “Have a Little Faith” by John Hiatt in your head, if not humming out loud. Good.

This classic song, coupled with Mitch Albom’s book and new movie by the same title, serves as a good reminder of letting go of what we cannot control. What do I mean by this? I’m talking about putting all fears aside. Stepping out of comfort zones. Taking leaps in a new direction. And, just trusting — ourselves and others.

Too often the word “faith” gets associated with religion or belief. While I practice both of these things, I’m learning doing so is only scratching the surface of the true definition of the word. In his book Albom writes “”‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.”‘

Touché, my friend.  

Is “faith” — whatever the definition — hard to have? You better believe it. But, faith comes in many forms.

A little girl recently sat near her mother at a coffee shop and was visibly upset. Not upset in the way of throwing a child-like temper tantrum. This fit of expression seemed to have more substance than that. She sat with her mother and older brother in a small coffee shop, located inside a popular grocery store, running her tiny fingers through her unbrushed hair as if trying to avoid the topic of conversation.

The mother and her children were not ordering coffee or truffles. Instead, they bought a loaf of bread in the grocery store and were sharing the snack while waiting for the bank to open on the same side of the store.

“Mommy, is she in heaven now?” she said.

My ears perked up.

“Yes, hunny she has gone to doggy heaven,” her mother answered quietly.

My heart sank. Having been in the shoes of that little girl earlier in my life, I felt her pain. I didn’t know her dog and I didn’t know their story. But, I’m not sure I needed to. (I imagine their story is similar to this one of another little girl coping with the loss of a pet)

The clock struck nine ‘o clock in the morning. The mom and her two children stood up, pushed in their chairs and put the twist tie on the loaf of bread before starting to leave.

“Don’t forget the bread,” the boy said.

“Someone else needs it more than we do,” she said.

Faith.

As the holidays draw near, we are reminded of traditional religion and routine. But, not necessarily of traditional faith.

Following a life-changing move this summer, I will spend Christmas without my family for the first time this year. My husband will be working, and until about two weeks ago, my plan was to watch Christmas movies and listen to Kenny G’s Holiday CD with my 15 month-old daughter in our pajamas.

My daughter and I have received three invitations from families in our new city after just meeting. At first, I felt like they were offering because they felt they had to. Or, it was the “right thing to do”. But after one kind woman extended an invitation an hour after meeting her, I realized they are offering because they want to and might truly enjoy our company.

If this would have happened last year, I probably would have politely declined the offers and stayed home at the risk of feeling uncomfortable. This year, my daughter and I will spend time baking cookies to share with our new friends and celebrate Christmas in a new way. Not uncomfortable,  just different.

I challenge you to step out of your box this season and trust a complete stranger. Have a little faith.

And, watch this video. It’s sure to raise your spirits this holiday season.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

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“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I sat in my own cozy coffee shop (also known as a living room with a pile of clean laundry on the floor) –  remote in one hand,  cup of coffee in the other.

In an effort to relax from a long day, I took at a look at my lengthy list of DVR recordings, settling on a new airing of Oprah Winfrey’s new “Life Class”series.

For those of you who don’t watch the new Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) or haven’t been (or won’t admit to) sucked in by the big surprises and controversial topics – Oprah Winfrey has launched a new network on cable TV. The new network still hosts shows accompanied by introductions so loud they sound like a whale in the middle of the ocean (Think: “You get a car, You get a car”). 

But, the  particular show I was watching isn’t as flashy. No special guests. No live audience. No giveaways. Instead, the show is a one-hour slot, with the objective to teach life lessons to viewers. Oprah’s the teacher, we are the students.

Today’s lesson? Stepping out of the box. A little cliche, if you ask me.

Throughout the show, Oprah posed this question to viewers: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”.

My wheels starting turning….

All fears aside.
 

Worries out the door.

I started to make a list.

If I wasn’t afraid, I would:

  • Open a wine bottle with my face in front of the cork;
  • Run a second marathon…this time pushing my daughter in a stroller;
  • Eat more ice cream;
  • Sit down with a homeless person and ask them about their dreams;
  • Take my dogs for a walk – alone and in the dark;
  • Ride more elevators;
  • Write a book;
  • Swim with my eyes open and nose unplugged;
  • Wear sweatpants to work;
  • Sing in public;
  • Set up a lemonade stand;
  • Travel the world;
  • Pick up a penny that is face down;
  • Decline life insurance;
  • Change scheduled plans at a moment’s notice;
  • Try a new ethnic food every week;
  • Drive through the mountains at night; and
  • Go down a waterslide, on my back, head first.

The point is – what’s keeping us from doing these things?

What about you? What would you do if you weren’t afraid?