“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”Mary Oliver
Two months have passed since my father died. I have spent many hours in solitude mourning the loss of his physical presence, reminiscing with old photos, reflecting on his generous spirit, quiet creativity, conscience connections with others, and his overall unremitting optimism and love for life. Moreover, I have thought deeply about my own sojourn on this planet. In his 85 years, my dad created and lived his best life. In honoring his presence, I am intentional in creating my own authentic life. A makeshift experience is not acceptable. As I was shuffling through some papers, I found this keynote address that I was honored to deliver at the Brook Road Academy Commencement Ceremony in 2013. The words I shared with the senior class then are still reliable and significant as I continue on my journey today.
As you sit before me this afternoon, I am sure most of you recall your first day at Brook Road Academy. You arrived from different places. For each of you, Brook Road has been a respite, a place to catch your breath, a nurturing community in which to learn, to teach, to re-group, to choose a new path, and to gather momentum to continue your life’s journey. Extending along the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, Shenandoah National Park has been a place of inspiration, respite, and relaxation for me for almost 30 years. As an avid hiker, I spend a great deal of time in Shenandoah National Park walking amongst the cascading waterfalls, climbing to the expansive overlooks, and studying the impressive geologic history, rock formations, and wide array of wildflowers. The trail system in the park is extensive and includes areas of designated wilderness and 104 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or AT. Many hikers traverse this trail from end to end, Georgia to Maine. Brook Road reminds me of the shelters that these through hikers encounter on the AT. The protective, three-sided huts are primitive, but welcomed structures after a long, arduous day of hiking on the trail. As hikers stop and rest in these lean-tos, community and camaraderie exist, however long the stay – just like Brook Road.
So here you are – each of you has chosen a new path and the hour is here for you sort through your “stuff,” decide what stays behind to lighten your load and what is worth the weight to be carried with you as you prepare to depart our safe little lean-to. As we are together this one last moment, I feel humbled as the experienced hiker chosen to give you a few words of advice:
For some of you, your path may be clear-cut, for others not so obvious. Walk in stillness and await for something along the path that feeds your purpose. Observe, appreciate, and saturate yourself in nature’s beauty and abundance for what you seek may be revealed in the unexpected.
Be mindful of every step, observe the minuscule moments and the majestic milestones along the way – the spectacular sunsets, gentle breezes, and aromatic wildflowers, as well as twisted ankles, blistered feet, and sore shoulders from carrying a heavy pack. Live entirely in the experience, learn humbly from hardships and happiness, and let go completely of cargo that is holding you back. Keep moving forward.
At times, your journey may seem mundane or boring. Stay focused, savor the familiar moments, and find calmness, peace, and purpose in everyday routines.
Practice gratitude to manifest sacredness in each day.
You will meet many different people on your journey. Every human interaction is a chance to make things better or make things worse. Remember, the most important person, is the one standing in front of you. Be kind – no exceptions.
Take time to rest and recharge on your journey. Do not be afraid to be alone – insist on and cherish times of quiet solitude. For it is in these moments you will hear the quiet whispers of your heart, guiding you deeper down the path to your truth and life’s purpose.
There will be obstacles – every path, however well maintained, still has obstacles – fallen trees, boulders, and water crossings. Stop and pause at each obstacle. Be thoughtful and creative in your solutions to overcome what stops you in your tracks. Sometimes you are presented with a detour or a new path. Point your compass in the new direction and continue on your way with confidence and conviction in your navigation skills. Most hikers will tell you, and it has certainly been my experience, that the most magnificent panoramic views and spectacular waterfalls are reached only after miles of slow, steady, uphill climbs; steep, thigh-burning descents; or precipitous, ledge-balancing maneuvers. These vistas are the reward for lots of hard work, effort, and sweat, while maintaining a sense balance. The pinnacle will absolutely take your breath away.
So, pick your path, know your boundaries, but acknowledge that a little discomfort is a sign you are working hard to make progress on your journey. If your intuition nudges you to stop at a hidden overlook or leads you down a trail that is not marked on your map, explore and lean into the unknown. You may end up on a different mountainside, but the view can be just as beautiful and the experience just as full. This is not the path on which I began when I graduated from high school, but here is where my path has led me in all of its climbs, descents, and obstacles. Let me tell you, the view from where I am standing is amazing. Just know where you are, is where you should be. Ultimately, the journey is yours alone – your path, your walk, your destination. Godspeed.
This post is dedicated to Matthew Stone, 21, a Brook Road Academy graduate whose journey here ended much too soon. His impeccable work ethic, kind-hearted, sweet nature, and playful, happy spirit will be profoundly missed.