This morning I had the honor of sending more than 150 Mount Mary College graduates into the community with a commencement address. I can’t tell you how amazing and surprising it was to find myself on that stage. It might surprise a few of you — although certainly not all — to learn I was a bit of a wild child when I entered college and so my mother insisted I attend Mount Mary College where I spoke today. Without the nurturing and patient faculty, staff and administration at Mount Mary, I doubt I would have graduated from college and I may never have become a writer. Community, whether family, friends, fellow writers, or schools, can create miracles. That’s what I spoke about today. Here is what I said:
Good morning. Thank you for this honor to speak to this community, to you President Schwalbach, and to trustees, administrators, colleagues, graduates and guests.
So. Here you are.
You’re really, really here! Congratulations, Graduates!
This means you’ve navigated another program, or perhaps another profession, or another level of academia. If your name appears on your diploma, you’ve turned in all your research papers, finished one last clinical or lab and completed that final presentation – at least that final presentation for this leg of your journey.
Before this coming year is out, some of you will find yourselves in unimaginable places. You’ll find new jobs, perhaps add to your families, or return to higher education; many will pilot careers within your communities. And when you reach out to others, the magic of your own transformation will lead to the miracle of community.
President Schwalbach declared this year’s theme as Community. This theme dovetails perfectly with the transformative vision of this college—to educate women – and men and women in the nursing and graduate programs – to change the world. It’s a perfect theme for my own belief that we each need to go out, flaws and all, to make the world a better place than we found it.
In your journey at Mount Mary, you may have found magic in transformation. Transformative elements grace so many areas of our lives through what we’re learning and applying already. In my own life as a writer and teacher, the qualities of transformation permit me to immerse myself in the creative process — to find redemption, humor, strength and hope. It allows me to see cautionary tales in such flawed heroes as writer Amy Tan, who struggled in her relationship with her mother and her culture, and rock star Janis Joplin, both whose lives I’ve written about.
My goal as a teacher is always to help you discover the transformative elements of creative spirit. Simply, this means I help students discover what rocks their writing world.
As I look around this room, I can see how the transformative magic of your education might have blessed a student teacher with the chance to observe understanding on a child’s face. Transformative insights might have inspired a nurse to console a frightened patient. For some, transformation may have come through travel to distant countries and discovering connected lives in new customs.
In each case, our hearts and knowledge — put to work in the community — create change that will generate a ripple of good. In Africa, this is the philosophy of Ubuntu, a philosophy my son’s friend Scottie explained means “my humanity is tied to yours.” So we are one. All humanity is connected.
Many years ago my own call to community began here at Mount Mary. One moment I recall was especially transformative – when I served as a student editor for the Mount Mary College newspaper, the paper’s office was next door to the sculpture room. Late at night, while I read and revised copy, I could hear the tap, tap of a chisel as it was pounded into wood. This was Sr. Regina who spent long nights creating wood sculptures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that can be seen on altars all over the world. She tapped out a prayer for her students each time the chisel hit wood. I began to listen for the sound of her work, grateful for the prayer being sent out for me and others. Sometimes I found myself praying silently with her. For peace. For understanding. For community.
Maybe that was when I first discovered that the magic of transformation leads to the miracle of community.
I began to live my ideals, speaking out for social justice especially education for women and children, and writing to make flawed heroes heard so that their stories can change the way we see. Sometimes my ideas make others think I’m the madwoman in the room, but there’s a joyful hope that comes with working for good change.
Of course, I’m not the first to have discovered this. A look around the world shows many others living the miracle. It inspired Edwina Gately who spoke at Mount Mary’s fall symposium on social justice, to bring marginalized people off the streets so she can help them develop self-esteem and new job skills.
Greg Mortenson a man who failed to climb K2, the most tortuous mountain in Pakistan, promised to build a school in the small village of Korphe, where he had been saved and healed. People thought he was attempting the impossible, He was mad. Insane.
He says of what he does: “What we are trying to do may be just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” He has constructed more than 50 schools in rural regions while also making women’s education possible in that country. His work has been chronicled in the popular book Three Cups of Tea….
A request for examples of miracle of community brought amazing stories. A Wisconsin friend and farming writer said that whenever a farmer dies, members of her community show up with an outpouring of love to combine the corn, fix a fence or barn roof, or to makes meals and help families heal their grief.
Alum, Nicole Jenks May, wrote of Milwaukee’s St. Josaphat’s Basilica, with the gold domes that gleam at sunset, as “a tangible example of what poor Polish workers could do, when banded together, giving their time and talents and saving money to buy a train car of materials here and there. That church,” she wrote, “is definitely a miracle.”
Sister Joanne Poehlman told how this miracle is lived within the SSND community. She wrote, “Life in our community is a giving and a receiving of love and respect, a living together in trust, openness, sincerity, and forgiveness.” I have every faith that her prayers and the prayers of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have helped many to create miracles in community.
We have alums and friends from Mount Mary who have opened clinics in Milwaukee for the poor, worked with the homeless and victims of violence, advocated for better foster care and adoption; they have taught and entertained communities with song and story and used their creative talents as activists for change and to heal.
Now it’s your turn. You have been given the magic of transformation and now you get to create the miracle of community. There’s work to be done. But, don’t forget to play too. Make this journey a joyful, blessed journey. To quote writer Neil Gaiman’s
graduate blessing: “May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.”
And remember as you work and play and create, that to do so in community will lead to that miracle of Ubuntu. My humanity is tied to yours. Our humanity is connected always.
Hi all, It’s late but I don’t want to neglect those who peek in on my blog. I promise, promise, promise to post a more coherent blog when I have time, but for now I want you all to know that Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing is one of five finalist books for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. I’m so totally thrilled that my feet haven’t touched the ground all week. I told someone that I think I get what Paul Simon meant when he sang about the woman who walked with diamonds on the soles of her shoes. I think it was me. Really. Okay, well, sort of. He couldn’t have been writing about me because we don’t know each other. Never met in fact. Never even crossed paths on a city street. But, before I forget, here’s the image of Janis Joplin Rise Up Singing with that sweet silver finalist sticker on the cover:
I have no idea why all this wonderful stuff is happening although I have suspicions that Janis and her friend Myra have conspired up there in heaven together. And how knows, maybe they had the spirit help of my mom and sister Lulu who’ve been hanging out up there for a long time. Oh, dear, am I getting sort of Whoopie Goldberb in that movie GHoST? That’s not my intent but I don’t think I did this on my own. I had to have a whole team of people at my publisher’s — Amulet Books for Young Readers - working in the background as well as some sort of holy help, don’t you think? If you don’t, I’d love to hear your own theories.
Anyhow, forgive my overtired musings and let’s get back to the topic at hand…Janis.
When I was steeped in heavy revisions of Janis, I dreamed she showed up in my kitchen. There she was in a poncho and jeans with her hair all wild and lovely and that amazing smile and Texas twang, just standing in my doorway. She said, “I heard you gave me a do-over.”
I stood there at the counter where I tend to cook and proofread even though it’s a fire hazard and stared star-struck dumb while I clutched the manuscript to my chest. I think I said something clever like, “Uh, yeah.”
“Cool,” she said. Then she asked, “Does the ending come out the same?”
I flipped through pages even though I knew the answer, hesitated, looked around, finally mumbled out, “I’m sorry.”
She was okay with it though. She just sat down, kicked her heels up on my kitchen table and rocked her chair back, laughed that trademark cackle and said, “Oh well, Those are the breaks!” But she laughed like she knew something. And then there’s her friend Myra rooting for the book. Myra, loved her so dearly and couldn’t stand the way people misunderstood her and who died this past October, forty years after Janis and in the same month that the Janis book came out and the same month that David Getz produced a song relying upon Janis’s lyrics. In an email to me, he called it Karmadelic (a word he made up that fits so beautifully the way Janis might have expected things to fall out on this earth). Going back to my dream – I think Janis laughed at the outcome because she knew her life doesn’t end quite the same way in the book because, as long as her voice is alive, we can keep her alive. I wonder if she knew Myra was about to join her when I was dreaming. Janis was my hero, flaws and all when I was growing up; she was my cautionary tale. I think many of us need to hear her again and again so we know we’re okay — flaws and all. Her friend Myra became my most recent hero. I’ve never talked to a wiser, more loving woman. Anyhow, I think of both women and all the friends in my life these days. What great magical connections!
And now I need to go to bed because I’ve wandered and wondered way too much tonight on little sleep all week. I’ve been burning the candle morning, noon and night between teaching, talking up this book and the book of essays daughter Amanda and I edited (Silent Embrace, Perspectives on Birth and Adoption) … which I said is my activist book until I realized that the way Janis is speaking to young adults who don’t feel they measure up or have have been bullied for being different…
… I’ve also been steeped in thesis defenses at Mount Mary College and now I need to write a graduation speech and a short speech about Janis for ALA…OMG! I need sleep now so I can do those speeches. And I’m rambling. And I’ve got diamonds on the souls (an unintentional misspelling although karmic?) of my shoes and I’m really, really, really tired and going to bed now……..before my mind wanders even further.
Here I go, walking up to bed with diamonds on the soles of my toes because I’m not wearing shoes…………