The Greatest Love of All

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows.  If I fail, if I succeed – at least I’ll live as I believe.  No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.  Because the greatest love of all is happening to me.  I found the greatest love of all inside of me.  The greatest love of all is easy to achieve.  Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. – (Greatest Love of All)

Michael Masser and Linda Creed wrote the music and lyrics in 1977 with the most famous version of it recorded by Whitney Houston in 1985.  I listen to it often . . . usually while starting my evening run.  It has a good beat. Houston has a good voice.  And the song . . . has a great meaning.

I grew up in the 1970s, graduating from high school and college during that decade.  And that decade included the end of the Vietnam War, Kent State, Apollo 13, Watergate, Mark Spitz, Love Story, Soul Train, the skateboard, and hot pants. That time period was a strange mixture of longing for the simplicity of the past while yearning for what might be great changes in the future.  It was also a mere fifty years since the United States granted women of the United States the right to vote.

During the 1970s, women weren’t exactly encouraged to pursue their dreams.  It was certainly legal to go to college, bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.  But . . . it wasn’t readily accepted as a way of life.  Change was still far off on the horizon.  We, as women, could see it, but it was distant, and fuzzy, and always just a bit out of arms reach.  But we, collectively, and I, individually, moved on, just putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, week by week, year by year.  Nothing was perfect, but it wasn’t chopped liver either.

What became clear to me early on . . . is that I had to believe in myself – believe that I could succeed, believe that I would be okay if I tried and failed, believe that I, alone, and no one else had control of my destiny.  That’s not to say that I stood by myself 100% of the time, but it had to start with me.  It had to start somewhere deep inside my world and gain momentum along the way.

The only way folks like Sandra Day O’Connor, Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and my very own mother achieved the greatest they achieved – as I can unwind it –  was, first, loving themselves.  Not selfishly.  Not thoughtlessly.  Not inconsiderately. But supportively, sensibly, and courageously.  They seemed to know how to lead themselves before gaining the skills used to lead others.

Via Houston’s voice, Masser and Creed tell  us – regardless of gender – “never to walk in anyone’s shadow.”  They are certainly not the first folks to tell us so, but they do so in a simple, direct way.  And, in the previous stanza, they tell us to let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.

My six-year-old grandson is carefree, confident, happy, inquisitive, and has absolutely no fear of failure.  In fact, in his eyes, there is no such thing as failure – only unusual successes.  He definitely isn’t walking in anyone else’s shadow.  I am not even sure he has the ability to do so.  He certainly doesn’t have the desire.  He loves himself for himself.  Children are models in that regard, our inspiration.

I paused while running and took a photo of my shadow.

Though I have slowed down a bit with this activity, throughout my own children’s college years, I would routinely email the lyrics to songs like The Greatest Love of All to my sons and daughter, usually on what I called Motivation Mondays.   With each email, I would remind them of their own personal greatness and implore them to consider their talents in order to make a difference in their world, in my world, in the world.  My purpose behind Motivation Mondays wasn’t to stroke ego or make sure  that all 18-22 year olds related to me were attending college classes as scheduled; rather, it was to nurture the ability within them, within all humans to love ourselves in the best way possible.

For me, I hope and pray that the struggles of the 1970s are nearing the end, and that the solutions to today’s struggles are easier to reach.  I hope and pray that my own children have the Greatest Love of All, and that they recognize that it is being modeled for them every day, in every way, by the gentle giant of a six-year-old who is a fearless soul at this point.  And finally, I hope and pray that I continue to forge my own path, my own destiny, never walking in anyone else’s shadow.

It’s a story that hasn’t been finished.

Things I Have Long Since Forgotten

When I put my mind to it, I realize that I have long since forgotten perhaps more than I remember.

. . . the names of the Shakespearean tragedies  . . . the number of elements on the periodic table . . . the distance from the earth to the sun . . . why humans hiccup . . . the Gettysburg Address . . . the Pythagorean Theorem . . .

Throughout my first twelve years of education, rote memorization was a way of life.  If it could be memorized, the good Sisters of Our Lady of Fatima Grade School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School required it.  There wasn’t a week that passed without my brain being stretched in order to set something, usually something I perceived as complicated, to memory.  It seems like I was routinely required to retain and recall all kinds of formulas, poems, definitions, conjugations, lists, songs, instructions, passages, speeches and prayers.

. . . the 44 United States Presidents . . . the Greek alphabet . . . Maslow’s first name . . . the hierarchy of biological classifications . . . the lyrics of almost any song . . . the novels of Mark Twain . . . the Latin roots of the verbs of action . . . the I have a dream speech . . . PI and its uses . . .

When I think back to the laundry list of things I memorized and fast forward to today’s list of thing I have long since forgotten, it’s a little frightening.  In my neck of the woods, what fifth grader didn’t have to recite by heart the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution? What second grader didn’t have their multiplication tables memorized? And what Catholic high school senior couldn’t recite the books of the Bible – New and Old Testament without flaw?   But on some levels, today, I may be hard pressed to ace all that I once knew with ease.

. . . a natural minor scale . . . the names of bones in the human body . . . the rules of probability . . . the expeditions of Ferdinand Magellan . . . the kilometer to mile conversation formula . . . the nations of the United Nations . . . the members of the Dow . . . why there are lunar phases . . .

From 1962 to 1974, my life included many evenings of tough love studying to ensure that not only did I memorized everything aside from the ingredients of the nearby pickle jar, but so, too, did my five siblings.   I can still hear the ‘listen and repeat’ mantra emanating from family and friends – hoping that all that entered my head stayed in my head.

. . . the list of constellations . . . Juliet’s speech from the balcony . . . how to find a square root of anything . . . the NASA astronauts . . . prime numbers up to 100 . . . the periodization list . . .

During my college life and beyond, the time spent memorizing seemed to diminish.  Perhaps I had committed everything that I needed to commit to memory. (It’s a nice thought, but even as I write that one, I doubt it.)  Perhaps higher education was moving me beyond remembering towards understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, or creating.  (That’s a lofty thought.)  Or perhaps I just ran out of time (which is the most likely explanation),  for memorizing cannot be accomplished without a generous allotment of available minutes, hours, days.    I know, however, that time spent on memorizing is time well spent.

As evidenced by what occurred on Friday, May 11th, 2012.

As a lifelong educator, I have attended all kinds of graduation ceremonies; and each ceremony has its own flair of the sun . . . its own flash of sparkle . . . its own best moment.  But in all that I have witnessed, nothing has even come close to May 11, 2012.

The pomp and circumstance of this particular ceremony was in full swing.  The National Anthem had been sung, the faculty awards given, the distinguished alumni honored, and the presidential welcome complete.   Next in line was the speech from the young student trustee.  The graduates were poised for listening, but as always, their hopes were for something short and sweet.

Kiersten took the stage with ease, cap and gown swirling around her.  She strode to the podium, and much like all earlier speakers, her prepared notes were waiting for her.  And she did pause momentarily to open them.  Then, with striking confidence, she gazed out into the audience and began her address.  Within seconds, the audience – which filled the field house beyond capacity – came to the realization that those notes were going to go unused, because she had – in preparation for the occasion – committed her entire speech to memory.

And it was stunning.

No cue cards, no teleprompter, no power point, no reading from notes, no magic tricks . . . just Kiersten delivering a speech for the ages.  And as she finished and left the stage, my mind wandered back to the times and moments that folks asked me to memorize something, anything, everything.  I could hear Sister Mary Vincent loud and clear telling a class of eight year olds that even though I didn’t understand it today, in the future, I would see the power of a speech memorized well.  And it may have taken a long time, but on May 11, 2012, I saw just that.

I am no stranger to great speakers.  It has been my privilege through my type of employment to hear a slew of tremendous folks speak – among those:  President Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy, Governor Jeb Bush, Dr. Mark Milliron, Ms. Eva Mozes Kor, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, Ms. Erma Bergmann, Mr. Jim Collins, Ms. Jean Driscoll, Mr. Lou Henken, and many, many more.

From that particular list, I can remember not only the essence of their oration, but their presentation style as well – each one having a different type of appeal, a different type of approach, evoking a different type of emotion.

What was common, however, is my impression that all of them had memorized their entire presentation.  Moment for moment, word for word, they had it memorized.  Some spoke at great length.  Some were humorous.  Some were aided by technology.  Some were asked to speak at the very last moment, but regardless seemed to be totally prepared.  One took my breath away.

Today, I thank my lucky stars on two levels:  one that my life has been filled with opportunities to memorize more than i can ever remember, and two that I was among those in attendance on May 11th, 2012 – where I witnessed excellence.

As you can see, I was truly having a great time at Graduation 2012! Many thanks to all who made it so . . . memorable!

The Pearl Harbor Firefighters

WOW.  I look at this picture and am speechless.  WOW.  There are certainly a thousand words in me that describe what I am thinking, feeling, seeing when looking at this photo, but the first word coming to my mind is . . . WOW.

WOW.  The sirens must have been blaring . . . fires roaring . . . death and destruction surrounding all. For all I know bombs were still falling.    The sky above looks to be full of hazy smoke, most likely residual from the deadly attack.

Though the three faces that I can see look intent, it is the hands of all the women that truly show intensity.  All fingers holding onto a 1941 fire hose with all the power they found deep within themselves.  Side by side each hand forming a chain of strength enabling the women to hold on . . . tight . . . knowing that their success could save lives.  WOW.

And the courage of these women.  Their ‘caution to the wind’ actions – working to save the lives of others while their own lives could have been in danger – shows courage.  Their fight to contain a stronghold on a monster hose knowing quite possibly that their physical strength only existed due to their number – shows courage.   Their desire to help those in distress – placing their own needs second – shows courage.  I often wonder what my response would be . . . only hoping that I would be a person capable of fighting fires.

Their faces are mesmerizing.  Their eyes seem to be willing the stream of water to reach its destination.   Their jaws are rigid with determination, desperation.  And though the ground below their feet appears to be slippery and unstable, their legs are planted firmly, muscularly on the dock, no trembling or quivering . . . hoping against hope to end some type of eminent suffering . . . to bring some type of calm to the firestorm. WOW.

Within twenty-four hours, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation telling all that December 7th, 1941 would be “a date which [would] live in infamy.”  2,401 Americans were killed.  1,282 were wounded.  188 U.S. aircrafts were destroyed.  Family members, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and buddies – all walks of life were among those who perished.

Though I was not alive, I am sure that the United States stood still on that day . . . at that time . . . at that moment.  And although there is plenty of movement in the photograph, to me it renders an eerie, chilling stillness.  It is a quiet portrait, wordless.  The women are frozen in time, perched on the edge of the harbor, working with dazzling silent commitment.

WOW. I stare at this image and my mind wanders to what may have happened in the frames before this shot or what may have happened in the frames after it.  How did these women assemble?  Who called them to this duty?  Why them?  What was the chatter among them?  What were their skills . . . their strengths?

For some reason, after a good length of gazing at it, I want to know their names.  Who are they?  Where are they now?  What was their connection to this particular moment other than being in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941?  What doesn’t this photograph tell me about them?

So often as tragedy strikes, the sharing of detail is too difficult.  Sometimes, it is only through pictures – like this one – that those of us on the outside catch a glimpse of what those folks on the inside experienced.  The United States may be blessed to have this piece of history as documentation of the attack on Pearl Harbor – for part of infamy is remembering a moment such as this, for better or for worse.

Interestingly, the composition of the Pearl Harbor firefighters reminds me of another popular photograph: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.  A Pulitzer Prize winning photo taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima, it depicts six United States soldiers raising the stars and stripes in victory on Mount Suribachi.

The two photos were taken less than four years apart – one in agony and one in victory.  Both capture heroic actions – one on the part of a group of young women and the other a group of young men.  Each photo defines what I consider to be patriotism . . . our drive to protect freedom, our concern for each other, and our common goals as a nation.  Today – both photos are inspirational: they are true commentaries on the American spirit.

Though I was a very young child at the time, I have often heard, studied and can recall the words of President John F. Kennedy via his inaugural address in 1961 – a mere twenty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”   These words often give me guidance as I work through the challenges of daily life.

As the challenges unfolded on December 7th, 1941, I can’t imagine that the women in the photograph had any time to ask themselves or anybody else what they should do. No time for conversations or debate. Rather, I have a feeling that some type of instinct drove them to the precipice of the harbor, directed them to find a way to battle the torrent blazes around them, provided them with the courage to persist, and encouraged them to stand firm in their attempt regardless of the horrific circumstances of the day.

I just thank my fifty lucky stars for what these women did for their and my country.