The Magic of Transformation Leads to the Miracle of Community

Get ready for an Imagination Celebration!

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:

December 2010 

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.