The Graduation Speech I Never Gave #TBT

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#TBT to my first degree when I was valedictorian but did not attend graduation. I have been in the top 10 for all of my degrees, but my attendance at graduations has been sporadic, contingent on many factors in my life at that time. This is the speech I had prepared to give well over a decade ago when I completed my first degree. For that degree, there actually was no ceremony, as I graduated in the “off” (fall) semester, so there was nothing to attend. Note that the above photo is from a degree that did have a graduation ceremony.

Speech

There are so many people to thank, that I could be here all day. There are so many inspirational people and speeches that I would love to emulate. Some of my favorite graduation moments, speeches, and phrases come from movies such as Reality Bites and Say Anything. I would love to say something epic that will inspire you to go out and do great things, challenge the status quo, and change the world.

But when it comes down to it, it really does not matter what I say as I stand here before you today. You will not remember any of it. Twenty years from now, you will not remember the speeches, you will not remember what you wore, nor will you remember the unease you now feel as your sock is slipping down into your shoe. What you will remember are the feelings and the people who are here with you today celebrating and sharing this most amazingly precious moment with you.

So, I will say this: people are what are most important in life. This is what we need to remember. Graduation is a great accomplishment. We have sacrificed ourselves, our time, and our future earnings in pursuit of education. Never forget the people who have supported you through this time and who are here with you today. It doesn’t matter how much money you earn, if you get that snazzy corner office, or if you end up waiting tables and riding a bicycle, what matters most are the people in your life. Your legacy will be the ways in which you are able to make life better, even if that person you better is simply yourself.

When you leave here today, be sure to hug your children, your spouse, your parents if they are still alive, and even your grandparents if they are around too. For while graduation is a huge accomplishment, it is only a flicker compared to the flame of love that is the people in your life.

We have all sacrificed something in order to achieve this accomplishment today. Remember to be thankful for every thing in life. We should not be thankful just on the day in November when the calendar tells us to be thankful. Be thankful every day. Congratulations on your achievement and go forth and spread love into the world.

End Speech

I am currently in the home stretch of my final degree with less than two weeks to go. While I oscillate between relief and excitement to anxiety and despair, there is a part of me that knows that these are the days I am going to miss. They say that college is the best four years of your life. It has been the best twenty years of mine. As I look to the future, I am scared. I have been in some sort of educational institution for over 30 years of my life. Some people have been institutionalized by the mental health system, some people have been institutionalized by the criminal justice system, and I have been institutionalized by the education system.

I am sure that at some point I will have panic over the fact that my academic career is over. What is perhaps most difficult is the fact that it is over whether I like it or not. Even if I do decide that I want to return to school in the future to complete a PhD, I am unable to do so because I have officially maxed my federal student loans. Unless some institution decides to give me a full academic scholarship, I am unable to continue with any more education. I am not sure what is scarier – the fact that I cannot receive any more education, or the fact that I have officially reached the ceiling for student loan debt.

I have been half joking and half serious lately that I do not want a graduation party. I want a retirement party. Twenty years in any field is a career. My career as a professional college student is ending. I am not simply graduating; I am retiring from being a professional college student. I will never stop learning, but I will now be learning by less formal means.

I am looking forward to retirement. I have employment I love, and the most amazing people in my life. I am looking forward to running more marathons, and surfing more waves. My library card will be getting a great workout. I think I may even be getting a fishing license for 2016. I will finally have time to devote to the people and things in my life that are as equally or more important than education, which have traditionally taken a back burner role to school.

A few months ago, when I posted about the penultimate paper (the last but one paper), I had foretold that this major life change would be a challenging time for me but that I hoped to be able to face it with grace. I’m not quite sure you would call this last month or so grace; it’s more like the break dance you inadvertently perform on a slick floor trying not to fall down. Whatever is happening, my life is about to change in major ways.

I’m looking forward to being able to Rewind Real Slow.

Seattle #TBT

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Monthly #TBT from when I returned to the east coast from the west, and all the thoughts and feelings a decade brings.

When I think about leaving the west coast and returning east in 2005, I think about freedom. Everything we owned fit right into the back of a pickup truck. I took one backpack with me on the plane from Sea-Tac to Upstate New York. I was perfectly content with being able to wait a week with the contents of that pack while the rest of my belongings arrived. While books, CDs, and other household items make one feel comfortable and help to fill the time, they are not necessary to survival.

Fully embracing your local community and taking advantage of what is readily available is key. Using farmers markets and shopping locally not only helps your neighbors financially, but helps you to make friends as well. When we were in Seattle, we were constantly going to this show and that show, and having the best time with people – all by word of mouth without things such as Internet and social networking.

While it took time to build this same foundation and network on the east coast, we did build. It started with a poster. Go to a show. Talk to like-minded people who hang out in the same places as you, and suddenly you have a group of friends with common interests.

What I miss the most about the west coast is that it was affordable to live right in downtown Seattle and be within walking distance to practically everywhere. While we did have a truck, it often set idle in the driveway. Many times, we could bike or walk any place we needed to go.

On the east coast, housing is too expensive to live in a city or town to be able to walk or bike anywhere. On the east coast, vehicles are a necessary evil, as housing prices are more affordable in the suburbs, and things that you need like grocery stores and medical care are too sparse and spread out to be able to rely on public transportation. Not to mention, public transportation on the east coast often runs infrequently with limited routes.

Seattle reminds me of being able to throw the surfboard in the back of the truck and spending a day at the beach. Literally everything you needed was readily available. There was no need to have a vehicle on a daily basis unless you wanted a beach excursion or other type of road trip.

I’m sure that things have changed since I left the west coast- housing prices and availability for one. There is something to be said about being able to pack up all your belongings in two or three storage totes and pick yourself up for a cross-country relocation. There is freedom in not having to spread yourself thin trying to get to work, obtain groceries, or run other errands. On the east coast, the geographic challenges tend to contribute to more social isolation, and thus I feel it necessary to have more entertainment and distraction options in my home – movies and books for when the snow flies, and everything shuts down for a day, buried under feet of white stuff.

While hindsight is 20/20 and often viewed through rose-colored lenses, the aspects of coming back east that stick with me the most is how much I experienced on the west coast with so little belongings. When you settle in one place for an extended period of time, as I have been on the east coast, you accumulate stuff. Life was so much simpler without all the things.

It is thoughts such as these that contribute to my wanting to rewind real slow. That yearning for the wanderlust of youth when you had exactly what you needed, and nothing more, and if someone said, “let’s do this,” you enthusiastically replied “okay.” Seattle also taught me that I was put on this planet to live. Living is not simply working and paying bills. I deserve to have experiences in my very short time I have to be on this planet. That is a lesson I often forget in the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality of east coast workaholics.

Seattle is also special because it is the last large expanse of time in which I remember being present. Before the widespread use of smart phones, constant pings and notifications, social media, etc, we lived every day in the moment. Life really was much simpler when if you wanted to see or talk to someone, you had to find them, and if you could not get there due to distance, you wrote them a letter. The mail takes 3 days.

Ten years of living the grind on the east coast has definitely taken it’s toll. In my efforts to rewind real slow, I am hoping to return to some of the ease I felt on the west coast. Not only the relaxed pace, but the ability to live in the moment without fear of the future. The desire to recreate that feeling anywhere without being geographically bound to a particular location is what I am hoping to achieve. They say home is a place you carry with you. I am trying to build that feeling for myself where I presently am.

Is there a certain place in your life that elicits certain feelings? How can you recreate those feelings in your current location? Whether nostalgia or rose-colored glasses, how can you work to create experiences you envision?

Ottawa 2008 – #TBT to medal # 2

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In early 2008, I broke both arms at the same time. I have had 10 broken bones total in my life. While this was not the most debilitating injury of my life (I have spent almost a year in a wheelchair), it was certainly an injury from which I learned the most.

My left arm was in a cast from my fingers to my elbow. There were three broken bones in my dominant arm. My right arm just had a broken elbow, and healed faster than the left. When the event first happened, I was in shock. I did not realize anything was broken. I actually got in my car and drove to work. As I was driving, I realized my left arm hurt. Then I realized my right arm hurt. When I got to work, it was fairly certain not only to me but to everyone around me, that they were both broken and I needed medical care. So came the casts.

I had plans to run Ottawa in May 2008. I was just coming off my first race in the fall of 2007. Ottawa would become my second medal.

The first few weeks after my injuries were the most challenging. The pain pills did absolutely nothing, so I stopped taking them. It was very challenging and uncomfortable to sleep at night with two broken arms, so I mostly slept during the day after spending nights crying alone to myself in pain. I could not feed or dress myself. I had to have someone help me every day. It took about 2 to 3 weeks before my fingers could wiggle enough on one hand for me to be able to pull off my own sock.

It was at this point in my life, that you quickly learn who is there for you – and who is not. I went without being bathed for quite awhile because I could not do it myself and no one would assist me. I did find someone to wash my hair in a sink, but had to pay for the service. I had to pay people to help prepare my meals, take me to orthopedic appointments, and clean my house. It was hard.

The doctors overseeing my care knew that I was scheduled to run in Ottawa in the spring. As it was winter, I usually start my planning inside on the treadmill and then move outdoors. Due to my injuries, I was forced indoors. The initial start of my training was delayed by about a month due to my injuries. I was still determined to train for and run the race.

I had numerous conversations with my medical team about training. They were concerned about me running – the bounce, and the pressure that would be put on my bones trying to heal. They regulated how fast I could go on the treadmill. One week they would say my speed could not go above 3.0. The next week they said I could not go above 3.5. It was a constant discussion, struggle, and compromise as I wanted to go faster, and they were concerned about rattling healing bones. The only thing I could think was, “at least it’s not my legs. It’s just my arms. I don’t need my arms to run.”

Running with casts on, even on the treadmill was a challenge in itself. I was weighted down. I was off-balance. Trying to stay on the treadmill without falling off and injuring myself worse or additionally was challenging enough.

I went through my entire training plan for my second race with two casts on.

My recovery really came down to the wire. My right elbow healed before my left arm, but I am left-handed. Towards the end, I could use my right hand, but it was awkward. You try using your weaker side for 3 weeks and see how you do.

Finally, my casts were sawed off and gone on a Tuesday. The race was 5 days later, that following Sunday. I still faced physical therapy for my arms, and was not fully recovered. When the cast came off my left arm particularly, I had a lot of atrophy. I still to this day have not regained full use of my dominant hand due to some nerve damage. I do not have all of my strength back. I have had to intentionally work very diligently to try to “even out” my left and right sides so that my strength is not lop-sided.

On a Sunday at the end of May 2008, I ran in Ottawa, and earned medal # 2. I ran with the Canadian National Army. I may have just has casts sawed off 5 days, prior, but by the second race, I had already caught the bug. I was a runner, and continuously trying to push myself, even coming off an injury.

The race itself was quite challenging. The weather conditions were reminiscent of Chicago 2007 – the year that lives in infamy as every runner’s nightmare when the temperatures hit unprecedented highs, runners died or were hospitalized, and the race was canceled in the middle of the race. The same thing happened that following spring in Ottawa. There were unprecedented and unplanned for highs that made the race that more difficult. The race organizers actually ran out of water and had to water us down with garden hoses not only the last few miles, but also in the runners only area after crossing the finish line. Luckily, the spectators were smart lifesavers. Many of the children had super soaker water guns they were spraying us with and some amazing spectators brought buckets of sponges in water. Running with sponges was a godsend in that race.

What I did not realize at the time I ran Ottawa or even immediately after, was that not only was I able to run Ottawa and obtain my second medal after a challenging injury, but I also ran a Boston qualifying time. Boston qualifying times are only good for two years. I had gotten an email saying that my time was only good for one more year, and that was the first I had heard or realized how well I ran.

I later went on to earn my Boston Athletic Association medal in 2010.

Ottawa taught me very early on in my running career that if you have your heart set on something, you could literally overcome almost anything to accomplish it. This is a lesson that has always stayed with me, and contributed to some other weird and off-the-wall feats in which I have engaged over the years since that race. Ottawa was the race that proved to me that marathon runners really are made in the training, not just one day when you race. It was the race that taught me that what happens in the middle is when you learn the most about yourself. It taught me that start lines are just as important as finish lines.

Your first race shows you that you are able to do the impossible. Only about 1% of the population will ever run a marathon. It is in subsequent races that you learn so much more – about who you are as a person, and what runners and spectators as a community are really all about.

Since overcoming two broken arms to run Ottawa, I have also overcome a knee injury that almost put an end to my running career, I have ran while fighting lymphoma, I have ran while dealing with multiple food allergies, I have ran through death, undergrad, grad school, falling in love, and happy tears. I have overcome so much through my running that Ottawa was really just the beginning.

Today, on Rewind Real Slow, we #TBT to medal # 2.

Whether it’s your first race or your 20th, each race and every runner has a story. Find yours.

#TBT #Occupy

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By request, this month’s TBT post tells about the three months I spent with the Occupy movement in five different American cities.

“It ain’t a middle finger on a t-shirt, the establishment’s tryin’ to sell.

It’s a guy with the balls who told the establishment to go to hell.” – Eric Church

Slam Poetry Intro:

If a movement were to embody the battle cry of the disenfranchised, overworked, and generally shit-on Generation X, it would be #Occupy. We are the first generation in the history of this country to be worse off than our parents. Saddled with ever growing mounds of student loan debt that we were encouraged to incur in the futile pursuit of the American Dream, we are slaves not only to our debt, but to the boomers, our parents, as they age and look to us to care for them. At the same time, we struggle to provide for our own children and have the lowest rates of home ownership of any generation.

We grew up in the 80s, the era of Reagan and trickle down economics. Let me tell you that from the view of the 99%, the only trickle down that has worked have been the piss and filth in which we squander as the result of the establishment choking us to the point of death and then continuing to squeeze. It makes Urinetown look not like a musical, but rather like a pristine, and sterile hospital. We were raised in the age of excess, where more equaled prestige, and when it came our turn to take the reins, encountered a Second Depression that the right likes to write off as “recession.”

We break our backs under the lie of meritocracy. If good deeds equaled rewards, then why are we on our knees, as we beg for rights like healthcare, housing, and employment? We are the generation that fought your war on terror, and yet our veterans come home to shambles worse home than abroad. As a country, we neglect those who have fought to protect our freedoms, often in a war that they did not support or understand.

In all five American cities in which I occupied, encampments held relatively the same type of folk. Generation X. The students, the veterans, the homeless, the gay, the everyday people whose blood, sweat and tears keep this country moving every day.

End Slam Poetry Intro

One of the things that amazed me the most about the time I spent with Occupy was how human we all were in our connectedness to the issues and the situation. There were people in Philly, Boston, New York, and the two other cities in which I occupied that were of all ages, colors, and religions, and were able to create a harmonious and unified community, the type of which some cities dream to create. For the most part peaceful (yes, I understand some cities had violence), it was an opportunity not only to try to have our voices heard, but to come together and share the common experiences we all had.

One of the most important things I learned from my time with the Occupy movement is that the notion of meritocracy in this country truly is dead. I have often wondered both in my personal life and as a social worker, how it is possible for people to make “good choices”: for people to be working and live in small apartments with practically no luxuries, such as no cable, no cell phone, and sometimes no vehicle, and yet still struggle to put food on the table. The problem is not that we are not working hard enough or making poor choices. The problem is that our time is not valued and wages have stagnated in comparison to inflation.

Combine the death of meritocracy with the growth of the upper class, and now there is this entire swarm of people who made up Occupy. One of the things I feel like I brought to the table in my interactions with my fellow occupiers was the realization that in some European countries, such as France, where things are very different: France has universal healthcare, ample vacation time, ample pay, and other amenities than American lack – is that in France, the government is afraid of the people. In America, the people are afraid of the government.

This is an important distinction to consider. The power of the occupy movement was in realizing that we are the 99%. While the 1% holds the power in the form of an oligarchy, we are in fact more numerous and potentially have the ability to take some of that power back. The hard part is organization.

Once the camps disbanded, we all returned to our lives. We are still slaves to our jobs, taking care of both parents and kids, and living in tiny apartments because we can’t afford houses. We can’t afford healthcare. We can’t afford vacations. We see what “normal” lives are on the media and drown ourselves even further by going into debt trying to achieve what the 1% has gotten by pushing us down.

Part of my journey into minimalism is to further embody the occupy movement in my own life by saying no more. I will not be a slave to 65-hour workweeks. I will live within my means. If I have a pair of $7 jeans from Goodwill that fit and are decent, I do not need to go out and buy a $60 pair of jeans from designer store. Who am I trying to impress? People will either like me as is or bug off. I refuse to buy into the lie that the 1% is selling.

I am fully aware that I have lived through this country’s Second Great Depression in what was supposed to be the highlight years of my life. I am fully aware that I will never be able to afford to purchase a home, or have children. At this point, I have finally realized that no matter if you work hard and make good choices, that the system is stacked against us, and that it is a system that has been decades in the making.

It is perhaps times like this, when I feel closest to people who were from my grandparents’ time the people who lived through the first Great Depression. They were able to survive hard times and yet still maintain their dignity and their happiness. My time with the occupy movement has taught me the same. I may not be able to enact widespread change of the clusterfuck around me, but I can work to enact positive change in my own life. I can strive for happiness.

Yes, I am buried in student loans that I will never be able to repay, and I do realize that education was my “choice” (but really, what jobs can you get without one?); I am not paid a salary commensurate with my educational level, but I make a living wage. I may be on a shoestring, but I make ends meet. I have people in my life that love me, and at the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

For the record, I would have to say that of five cities, Philly was my favorite camp in which I occupied. In Philly, there was a sense of community. People were respectful and helpful with advice, warmth, and coffee, anything that you needed. The people I met and spent time with in the occupy camps would literally give you the shirt off their back if you needed one. That is what life is all about. Life is about people, not things.

While occupy is a political movement, and holds deeply political meanings for me, the most important aspect of my experience was very human. It’s about knowing that you are not alone in this world, that someone else shares your experience, and that you are loved.

My name is Rachel Anderson, and I am the 99%.

All that you leave behind

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Disclaimer: Don’t try this in today’s day and age.

Each month I will try to do a #tbt post about how some previous life experience has changed my life and what I have learned.

I did a lot of hitch hiking in the 90s. It wasn’t to be glamorous, or to go on some grand adventure like exploring the country full of glitter and whimsy like the movies. I was trying to survive. I had to get from point A to point B; I had very tenuous social ties, little to no funds and resources, and was trying to enact positive change in my life. I was also still a teenager, a freshman in college, with nothing to lose, no sense of fear, and a will stronger than gravity pulling me to follow my dreams.

One of the more dangerous (although I did not realize it at the time) hitch hiking trips ended up happening on the east coast when I went from Western Massachusetts to Rochester, NY and back again. This was the year that the internet was still being called the “information superhighway,” with internet access only being afforded by the very affluent and some colleges, yahoo was just invented (literally – I am that old), and the Macarena was this jammin’ club song, not just some cheesy dance you do at a wedding. It was Halloween weekend 1996, and the Yankees had just won the World Series. I remember it because I was later in NYC for the ticker tape parade, and I remember there being so much trash in the streets, it felt like walking through someone’s very dirty bedroom, but I digress.

Anyways, I had this grand plan of moving to Rochester from Massachusetts, hence the trip. Being in the pre-internet age of the dinosaurs, I collected as many newspapers and other printed materials I could in an effort to be able to connect with housing and employment to facilitate the move. I had so much material it filled a paper grocery bag. This was in addition to the backpack of clothes and other personal supplies, including my disc man (for the young ‘uns – it was a personal CD player with headphones before iPods were even imagined). I will always remember this as the trip I dropped my Blue Traveler CD on the floor of the Greyhound bus and broke the CD case. I still have both the CD and the case, in 2 pieces, to this day. Some things you do NOT leave behind.

Anyways, as plans fell through, as they do when you are young and clueless, I ended up stuck in a very rural part of Massachusetts called Cheshire, where there was not enough traffic to hitch hike, no pay phones around to call (No, children, there were not cell phones at that time either. We still had phone booths, and maybe if we still had them today, Superman would have a place to change), and my ride fell through.

I began what I did not know then, but know now, to walk my first unofficial half marathon, as it was about 16 miles from where I was to my destination. This was years before I officially started running, I was still a smoker, and so out of shape that I wasn’t a shape. It took me all day.

In the course of my journey, I learned just how heavy things could be. Literally. Baggage. The paper bag full of newspapers I was carrying in addition to my backpack of personal items, my head full of thoughts all conflicting and whirling.

I kept walking. Everything I was carrying got heavier.

I had already shed some items. Prior to the paper bag of newspapers, when I first arrived in Rochester, I was dropped in the Red Light District. Of course, I did not realize it was the Red Light District until I ended up being chased down the streets by some women taunting me, but I learned fast. In the course of that run, I lost things from my backpack. It was okay. They were unnecessary things. While in Rochester, I ended up sleeping in the AKC tunnels, and had things stolen. I don’t even remember what they were. Now, here I was in the middle of nowhere Massachusetts with a paper bag of newspapers and whatever was left of what ever I had packed in my backpack.

Luckily for me, the story ended happily. I was actually picked up by a very friendly police officer about three miles from my destination, who drove me the rest of the way. He told me I reminded him of his younger sister, and “don’t ever do this again.” Of course, I did. I hitch hiked the west coast a year or two later, but that’s another story.

Anyways, by the time I reached my destination, I no longer had the paper bag of newspapers that I so desperately acquired so I would have the information I needed to relocate. I no longer had the backpack or whatever personal items, including clothes, I originally had inside. I had the disc man, and that Blues Traveler CD whose case was now in two pieces from the Greyhound bus I did take from Western Mass to Albany, NY; the only portion of the trip I did not hitch hike.

I don’t remember and have no idea what was in that backpack. I do remember what that trip taught me. Sometimes, the things you leave behind are so painful to part with at the moment, and in retrospect are utterly meaningless. Parting with those items is freeing because it allows you to travel more lightly. Parting with certain possessions allows you to focus on the things right in front of you, and most important to you. For me, my music was important to me. Music has kept me going most of my life. What I would later realize from this experience is that what is most important to me was right in front of me.

I never did end up moving to Rochester. I was accepted to the university to which I applied there, but I did not get what I felt would be enough financial aid to make it a viable option. I ended up staying in Massachusetts, which was the best thing for me.

Now, what I didn’t realize, and that took me over 10 years to learn, was that when I finally did leave Massachusetts the following year, was that I was never meant to leave. That’s part of learning from the things you leave behind. Some of those things are meaningless, and some of those things change you.

What have you left behind? As painful as it is to let go, sometimes, we need to do that in order to see the beauty in front of us. For the record, when I travel, I now only pack one backpack, which makes it quite easy to get through airports with no checked luggage in the baggage claim, and I only pack what I absolutely need to survive (a few days worth of clothes). I have only hitchhiked twice since 2000, which is an improvement, but not something I would recommend.

The longer I live, the more I realize that sometimes you need to let go to get what you want.