Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lavender Graduation: A charge to the LGBT graduates of MIT May 8, 2015

Lavender Graduation

Since Abigail asked me to speak I have thought a good deal about what to say. I realized over the last few years that my theme has essentially been the same. I want you all to recognize how proud we are of you and what you have accomplished. And I want you to know that we have no illusions about the resilience it has taken to reach today.  I can cherry pick illustrations of progress, but I cannot forget the obstacles that continue to crop up: tensions with families, significant slights, the fear that is always present about whether or not acceptance is real or feigned.

You are graduating and like parents we would like to be sure you are safe so my inclination is to tell you that there are more supportive resources out there than you may know about.

But I remember a poem by Maria Mazziotti Gillan:

Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know

At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter did,
The slender body, that thin face, the grace
With which she moves. When she visits, she sits with my daughter;
They have hot chocolate together
And talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hand, the
Concentration with which she does everything,
Knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter at
This table and we talked and I watched the grace
With which she moved her hands, the delicate way she lifted
The heavy hair back behind her ear.

My daughter is grown now, married in a fairy-tale wedding,
Divorced, something inside
Her broken, healing slowly. I look at my grand-daughter and
I want to save her, as I was not able
To save my daughter. Nothing is that simple, all our plans,
Carefully made, thrown into a cracked
pile by the way love betrays us.

I know that there are strong communities of religious folk who are open and affirming. There are strong communities of progressive thinkers who are not religious who are open and affirming. I want to assure you that what you need can be found so you can navigate the roiling waters of life after MIT. That is what I would like to say but two recent bits of information crossed my path and made me think that I was being a bit too sanguine. I understand that love sometimes betrays us.

The first bit of data that challenged my thinking came from reading about Mary Bonauto, the talented Maine resident who has argued the cause of marriage rights up to the Supreme Court. Bonauto said that when she first started arguing the case she turned to her religious community for support. She loved her religious community but she realized that she would have to go elsewhere for support. That was over a decade ago, and some things have evolved and changed in such communities, but it still can be a crap shoot. I do not want to mislead you. Things we love can betray us.

The second jarring note was sounded by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post writing about Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who spoke to the Secular Coalition of America whose mission is “to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.”  He talked of his growing unease with “rigid certainty” on questions related to religious truth and of the pain and discomfort caused by outdated teachings and moral codes. But then he went on to tell of his own experience as a Senator and a person of faith who tried to speak to the progressive community at Yale Law School about his faith commitments and was greeted by what he called “real bigotry.” For many progressives, “accepting someone of expressed faith was one of the hardest moments of tolerance and inclusion for them.” But the Senator is hard nosed and as a result he  pushed on and learned of the origins of the experiences of these progressive folk who had personal “experiences of deep pain and of alienation that had driven a big wedge between them and religion.”

His conclusion was deceptively simple: We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” And that I have concluded is the message I need to leave with you today. Despite your accomplishments; despite our desire to protect you, we cannot guarantee that the path tomorrow will be smooth, but we have confidence in you and in your strength  to overcome adversity and to brush aside the betrayals of love and other experiences.

So while I would like to send you forth with words of comfort and encouragement, I am going to have to tell you that we need you to continue to be courageous and challenging of the status quo. We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” It is tempting to turn inward, to wall ourselves off from a culture that causes needless pain, but we must continue to engage and challenge that culture. That is your charge. We have faith in you and we will be here to support you.  Now, go with our blessings.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Positive Power of a Simple Greeting

Morrie Schwartz was a Sociology Professor at Brandeis University who was diagnosed with ALS in the 1990’s.  He did a host of interviews about life, dying and other fascinating topics.  Many were published in the book, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, A Young Man and Life’s Greatest Lesson by Mitch Albom.  I thought it quite applicable to use excerpts from one of Morrie’s “Tuesdays” interviews, i.e., “The Power of Saying Hello,” in my “Tuesdays in the Chapel” presentation.  The entire article can be found at, @1995-2007, Project Genesis, Inc.
Reading #1: Excerpt
The Power of Saying Hello
Truly noticing others is fundamental to their self-worth

" ...We all need recognition. We need to feel that we matter. This doesn't mean that we should be running for glory and honor, but every human being has a basic and natural desire to be acknowledged as significant.

And we can give some of this significance to others simply by greeting them properly. We may not put much thought into how and when we say hello to someone, and we should ponder it more deeply.
The first thing to realize, which we certainly don't always think about, is that when we greet people with a 'good morning', we are actually giving them a blessing. We are telling them that we hope they will have a good morning. This is why, if you ever meet a grumpy person who responds to your 'good morning,' with a line such as, 'Who said it was good?', the response, besides being rude, is actually inaccurate. We are not defining the morning by saying 'good morning' rather, we are offering a blessing that it should be a good morning.

All greetings are meant in this way. The classical 'shalom aleichem' means literally that 'peace should be upon you', an excellent blessing which we always need…

The explanation would appear to be that when we see a fellow human being, we are obliged to acknowledge his value and importance. ...But even in the greeting, you display your respect for the person even more when you offer him a blessing that he should succeed, that things should go well, that he should have a 'good morning.'

And the way in which we greet someone is also important. ...We are not supposed to give someone a quick hello; rather, we should give them eye contact, thought, and genuine loving attention. 
Morrie Schwartz did this:

"I came to love the way Morrie lit up when I entered the room. He did this for many people, I know, but it was his special talent to make each visitor feel that the smile was unique. . .And it didn't stop with the greeting. When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this—instead of a grumble from a waitress, or a bus driver, or a boss?

'I believe in fully present,' Morrie said. 'That means you should be with the person you're with. When I'm talking to you now, Mitch, I try to keep focused only on what is going on between us. I am not thinking about something we said last week. I'm not thinking of what's coming up this Friday….I am talking to you. I am thinking about you." (Pages 135-136)…"

 “You’re not from around here, are you?” or “Do I KNOW you?”  I have gotten such responses a lot during my almost 18 years in Massachusetts.  My friends warned me against moving to Massachusetts.  They said that people here have a reputation for being unfriendly and typically ignore each other.  I chuckled in disbelief and accepted the job at MIT anyway.  Much to my surprise and disappointment, my friends were right!  But not about everybody in Massachusetts, and certainly not about most of the residents being unfriendly.  Over time, I learned that I just needed to first find a way to get their attention to open the channels of communication. 
Even as recently as last month, I was walking down Mass. Ave. with my colleague, Kate.  We passed by a middle-aged gentleman walking in the opposite direction.  In my usual fashion, I looked him in the eyes as we approached him, smiled, and said: “Hi! How are you doing?”  I obviously shocked him because he continued to walk past us, then stopped in his tracks about 20 feet away, turned around and asked: “You’re not from around here, are you?”  Kate and I looked at each other and laughed as we exchanged a few friendly words with the man.  I asked him something like: “Why would you ask me something like that?”  He responded with something to the effect that: “People here do not greet each other; they typically act like they don’t even see you.”  We agreed that was a shame, said goodbye, and continued on our respective journeys.  I could see that my simple greeting brought a little bit of joy to this stranger’s day, as it did to mine, and likely to Kate’s as well. 
Although I get the question: “You’re not from around here, are you?” framed in a positive way a little more often these days, I am at a loss as to why this is so challenging for some people.  After all, I am only trying to acknowledge a fellow human being.  I believe that one never knows how a simple, warm greeting can impact another person’s day; or sometimes, their entire life!  I know that my day always gets a bit better when someone returns one of my greetings with a kind nod, a warm smile, or a pleasantly surprised look.  Their eyes light up.  It is a great feeling.  Better yet, I am elated when a stranger greets me first, which is not too often.  Not to worry, I shall continue to greet people in an effort to make “my” day, even if I don’t make “their” day with my simple greetings.
I have greeted strangers in and around MIT since I came here in 1998.  I am happy to report that many of those “strangers” are now valued colleagues and alumni whom I highly respect and whom I hope respect me.  People have taught me lessons as well.  For example, a wonderful student, who has long since graduated, raised my awareness (actually, my lack thereof), of the effect of my simple greetings on others.  One day I greeted her as I rushed past her in the hallway with my usual:  “Hi!  How are you doing?”  She responded by asking me why I never stopped to allow her to tell me how she was doing.  It never occurred to me that my choice of words might be interpreted as an invitation to stop and share what was going on in an individual’s life.  I learned a great lesson that day, i.e., people need not only recognition through greetings, they sometimes need a little companionship.  I try to never pass up such opportunities anymore.
In closing, simple, warm greetings can make people realize that they are not alone in this vast universe; that they can see beyond the tiny screens on their iPhones, hear beyond the sounds coming from their huge headsets, and hopefully notice that they are being and deserve to be acknowledged as members of our special community – namely the human race.  As Morrie Schwartz said:
 Reading #2: Excerpt
“...We can all be a little more sensitive to other people's needs—especially their need for recognition and companionship. This is how we help them realize their tremendous value as human beings."

Thank you.

Toni P. Robinson, Ombudsperson, Office of the President

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

It matters who you spend time with!

Tuesdays in the Chapel
April 14, 2015

My mother and I walked now through a town I had never seen. It was unremarkable, a gas station on one corner, a small convenience store on the other. The telephone poles and the bark of the trees were the same cardboard color, and most of the trees had dropped their leaves.
We stopped in front of a two-story apartment building. It was pale yellow brick.
“Where are we?” I said.
My mother checked the horizon. The sun had already set.
“You should have had more dinner,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “Come on.”
“What? I like knowing you’ve eaten, that’s all. You have to take care of yourself, Charley.”
I saw in her expression that old unshakable mountain of concern. And I realized when you look at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know.
“I wish we’d done this before, Mom, you know?”
“You mean before I died?”
My voice went timid. “Yeah.”
“I was here.”
“I know.”
“You were busy.”
I shuddered at that word. It seemed so hollow now. I saw a wave of resignation pass over her face. I believe, at that moment, we were both thinking how things might be different if we did them over.
“Charley,” she asked, “was I a good mother?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but a blinding flash erased her from sight. I felt heat on my face, as if the sun were baking down on it. Then, once again, that booming voice:
I blinked hard. Suddenly, I was blocks behind my mother, as if she’d kept walking and I’d stopped. I blinked again. She was even farther ahead. I could barely see her anymore. I stretched forward, my fingers straining, my shoulders pulling from their sockets. Everything was spinning. I felt myself trying to call her name, the word vibrating in my throat. It took all the strength I had.
And then she was with me again, taking my hand, all calm, as if nothing had happened. We glided back to where we’d been.


"A Third and Final Visit" from For One More Day by Mitch Albom, p. 174-175

I believe that the One Thing that is most important is the time and the people you spend it with. You can't control time - but you can control the people that you choose to be with as time goes by. 

I think that this is the very thing that Mitch Albom is getting at. As time goes by, we become swept up in the "should's" and the "could's" and - sometimes - more focused on other people's "shoulds", "coulds", "haves" and "have nots". I find that the more years that add up - I refuse to say fall away - I try to fill life as much as possible with those people who count. Only didn't get in the way. If the "next best thing that I know that should be happening to me right now" wasn't getting in the way. If worrying about what others have and what I don't wasn't getting in the way. 

The one thing that is most important is the people that surround you. It can be your family, your friends, your teachers, your colleagues, your students, your mentors. It can be people that you have known for your whole life or people that you met just yesterday. There is something to be said for folks in their 90's and 100's that didn't wish that they had worked more, but that they had spent more time with the people that mattered to them, the people that they loved. The people that wanted them to be the very best that they could be - that ironically, probably pushed them to do the great things that took up so much of our precious time away from them. We get caught up in our own troubles awfully quickly, don't we? Take Charley’s father for example - here was a person he had worshipped and looked up to, and then his father ended up disappointing him. However,  his mother was there all along, as frustrating as she might have been to him, she remained steadfast in her presence.  Do you know someone in your life like Charley’s mother? That no matter how much you might push that person away - they snap back to you like a rubber band right when you need it? Can you think of someone in your life that forgave you and that loved you unconditionally, no matter how much you might have hurt them? That when you may have been down in the dumps and hit rock bottom - you forgot that they were there - until they were? 

Now think about those people that you have lost in your life. If you were able to go back in time and see them again - what would be the first thing that you do? What would you say to them? How would you spend your time with them? We probably won't get the opportunity that Mitch had - but what if we did? 

I would tell my grandmother thank you for the Cabbage Patch kid on Christmas and the homemade tuna fish sandwiches and letting me eat Cool Whip out of the container. I would thank my grandpa for letting me play in his garden in the summer, pretending I owned a flower shop and for using his house as a great hide and seek spot. I would thank my boyfriend from high school for making me laugh, for campaigning for my votes  when I got Homecoming Queen junior year. I would ask my dissertation advisor about what she was afraid of - she always seemed so sure of herself! - what made her scared, about her failures in life. I would ask friends that my classmates and I had lost too soon -what was your favorite memory with your friends - what are your dreams? How can I help you.... If I had one more day.

Personally, I like to surround myself with people that make me laugh, that fill me with so much emotion that it's impossible to not feel like I'm truly alive. I'm so blessed to have those people in my life --- whether it's here, back in my hometown, or across the country. It is those people that are the most important. That have seen me at my worst - my best - my failures and successes. It is those people that keep me coming back swinging each day - no matter what life tosses me. So we can't control time. But we can control the choices we make within it. What you allow is what will continue. And that goes for the people you choose to surround yourself with. 

Now, as I said when you first sat down, I don’t expect you to go with me here. I haven’t told this story before, but I had oped to. I waited for this chance. And I’m glad it’s come, now that it’s done.
I have forgotten so many things in my life, yet I can remember every moment of that time with my mother, the people we saw, the things we discussed. It was so ordinary in so many ways, but as she said, you can find something truly important in an ordinary minute. You may think me crazy, that I imagined the whole thing. But I believe this in the deepest part of my soul: My mother, somewhere between this world and the next, gave me one more day, the day I’d wanted so badly, and she told me all that I’ve told you.
And if my mother said it, I believe it.
“What causes an echo?” she once quizzed me.
The persistence of sound after the source has stopped.
“When can you hear an echo?”
When it’s quiet and other sounds are absorbed.
When it’s quiet, I can hear my mother’s echo still.
I feel ashamed now that I tried to take my life. It is such a previous thing. I had no one to talk me out of my despair, and that was a mistake. You need to keep people close. You need to give them access to your heart.
As for what’s happened in the two years since, there are so many details: the hospital stay, the treatment I received, where I’ve been. Let’s just say, for not, that I was lucky on many levels. I’m alive. I didn’t kill anyone. I have been sober every day since—although some days are harder than others.
I’ve thought a lot about that night. I believe my mother saved my life. I also believe that parents, if they love you, will hold you up safely, above their swirling waters, and sometimes that means you’ll never know what they endured, and you may treat them unkindly, in a way you otherwise wouldn’t.
But there’s a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours began.
So this was my mother’s story.
And mine.

I would like to make things right again with those I love.

"Chick's Final Thoughts" from For One More Day by Mitch Albom, pp193-194.

Leah Flynn Gallant
MIT Assistant Dean and
Director for Student Leadership and Engagement