Last week I was invited to be a speaker for a high school graduation. It was a request I never expected to get, at least not at this young of an age, at least not at this time in my life when I still feel young. Immediately I was humbled. I felt happy and grateful: “really? they asked for me?” were some of the questions running through my head. After I hung up the phone and soaked in the news, the weight of it hit me. What would I say? What have I accomplished in the 26 years of my life that makes me someone worth sharing life knowledge with young people about to enter their adult lives?
So I made an internal list of possibilities:
- I came from a reservation and attended an Ivy league college (Stanford) and graduated.
- I co-edited a book with one of my mentors
- I teach freshman English and Intro to Creative Writing at UNM
- I am the Assistant Director for an Upward Bound program
- I’ve published poems
Sure these are accomplishments, many of which I’ll even venture to say deserve mention or respect at some level. But they are just roles I fulfill, things I’ve done that anyone can say they’ve done at one point or another. Looking at that list it sounds like a resume, a bio someone reads before you speak. The list doesn’t seem like the “meat” of anything substantial that could feed the souls of anyone for more than 5 minutes and even then, 15 minutes or so after the speech – would any of it seem memorable?
In one of my creative nonfiction workshops, our professor said that people are drawn to write and read memoir because it is about hurt, traumas, things we can relate to. One often turns to memoir for healing or some sort because something in our world doesn’t sit right with us and we too want to enter the unstable situation of the “story” and come out (while not completely healed and steady) but at least a little more stable than we started off.
As a writer I think, what do I share on the page that would hopefully stay with a reader? So I apply this same type of mentality to the graduation speech. What could I possibly say, what would I want to say that could resonate and stay with these students? What do I feel is important for them to carry with them as they enter the next phase of their lives?
I’d have to say that as you get older, things change you. All throughout your life things have changed you. We all have those experiences that have split us open from the inside and shattered the very being of us…we’ve all had to put ourselves back together at one point. We’d all like to hear that these things happen for a reason, that we are being molded and scraped and smoothed and chipped into the exact shapes of what we need to be to prepare us for our destinies. And this is true.
Looking back to that phone call and the request I can’t help but think “how did I get here?” And I know. I am here in this job that allowed me to work with and reach these students in the first place because of M. And that’s not to say I didn’t have any control in my “fate.” I took initiative in applying for a fellowship that first summer I worked with this program and I got the job. But losing M… well that changed me. Losing M broke me and my core and refocused my outlook on the world. If it hadn’t been for M I wouldn’t have looked at the students the same, I wouldn’t have undertaken my job with as much passion and empathy as I did then. And all of those things are the reasons why I stuck with the job for 5 more years, why I was able to impact the students in whatever way I did to get to where they are asking me to speak at this milestone in their lives.
I do not take this lightly. I will have to share that story because it is so much a part of who I am. And it’s not some Lifetime or Disney movie where I just came out on top. Every day was a struggle for the first two years. Every significant date was a struggle for the next two years after that. And here, nearly five years later after the loss of M, I have enough of the “psychic distance” we writers need to “make sense” of some of those experiences. What I learned (at least part of it) is that the things that break you, also make you. They make you more empathetic, they make you able to relate to and help others who have experienced some of the same hardships. They make you a survivor. They make you a re-memberer who can help put other people back together when they feel as if they are falling apart and they make you remember that there are “bigger” things in the world besides the things we let get to us, the petty angers or frustrations. And we remember that we never know what people are going through beneath the surface.
Life continues to amaze me just when I least expect it. Last week as I was traveling I thought of how much I am always traveling…caught in between here and there. I felt the need to feel grounded. Later at the airport and I thought of M. And for the life of me I couldn’t remember the date M died, the date of M’s birth, and I nearly stopped breathing. 2 days that held such significance and here I could not pull those details from my memory. I Googled M’s name and FB profile. And then I found it – the connection – I would’ve never been on this path that I am on. In that moment, under my breath, I thanked M. And I finally felt grounded in the love.
M taught me that you never know just how significant your life is to someone. You never know how much of a difference you make, the difference you CAN make in your lifetime, in one year, in one month, in ONE moment if you just be a blessing to others, a family member, a stranger, or a friend. And somehow, doesn’t that make the world a little less scary? Somehow doesn’t that make you feel full that you have the power to be someone’s blessing in the world.
I bet M didn’t have any idea back then how far his grasp and influence would reach, how many people are still being affected because of him. Luckily I have time to think more about all I want to say and how I want to say it, but these are just my initial thoughts. I do know I am grateful for this opportunity.
Be a blessing to someone today Reader. And when you are a blessing to others you will receive them as well and when you least expect it, when you’re about to lose your breath, you’ll make the connections you need.