My first-ever graduation speech

My seniors are leaving me. Graduation is five days away. If I had one bit of advice to give them it would be this—be happy.

There’s a difference between happiness and joy. Joy comes from the Lord. That is something He gives, something we can accept but not make happen. I hope my blogs are candles or lanterns in the night, not blinding, in-your-face beacons.

So rather than preach joy, I’ll talk about happiness.

I think God wants us to be happy. I talk a lot about serendipity in this blog, hence its name. But serendipity is a fortunate discovery. I believe God puts circumstances, things, and people in our paths to give us opportunities for happiness. I don’t believe in coincidences.

Don’t we do little things for our children, just to see them smile? Just for the sake of them being happy? I think God does the same for us.

As my seniors toss their tassels and begin a new life, I hope they’ll make the RIGHT choices that will lead them to happiness.

First, I hope they’ll pursue their heart’s desire. So often we settle for second best. Why? The reasons go on forever. Maybe we lack the faith to believe that we’ll ever get what we really want, so we take the first available offer.

I’ve known kids to drop out of school to hold down a full-time job to make truck payments and then have to work so much they have no time to enjoy their truck. Or they wreck it. Or the company reposes it. If only they had waited, they could have had dodged the hassles and basked in the happiness of owning something that was theirs–not the bank’s.

I’ve known students who have had a passion for a specific career only to have a relative persuade them to go down a different path. The career may pay off in the long run with a nice pay check, but money can’t buy happiness. How would you like to work 30 years at a job you hate?

I believe the old saying—find a job that you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

I know students who will choose a career based on how quickly they can finish schooling. Then they spend the rest of their lives regretting their decision. They may never use their college education, or they may spend another four years finally pursing what they wanted to do in the first place.

I know students who are so desperate to get out of their current living arrangements that they’ll move away, get married, join the military, take a full-time job—just to escape. What they’re searching for is happiness. What they find is regret.

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above decisions. But my point is, I hope my seniors consider their happiness just as seriously as they have considered any other major decision in their lives.

When I was a rookie teacher, all I cared about was being the best teacher I could be. Now that I’m older, I realize there are days when no one can beat me. I am the best. Then there are days, when I really stink. It all averages out. But it’s not about me. What matters is my students. I really care what happens to them.

Some of my students have made decisions in their life that have limited their choices, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t be happy.

God gives second chances.

People should never live their lives wondering what could have been, “only if.” When we stumble upon an second-chance opportunity for happiness, we should consider it a gift. But second-chance opportunities aren’t that easy to come by. It’s much easier to make wise decisions from the start.

Again, if I could give any advice to my grads, it would be this—take the risk, overcome the obstacle, put in the time, hold tightly to your faith. Do whatever it takes, but be happy.

Never settle for anything less.

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Seasons

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?  ~ Stevie Nicks

Yeah, I’ll admit it. I’m an American Idol fanatic. What can I say? I love music. I love young people. I love seeing people’s dreams come true. So, yes. When Stevie Nicks appeared on the show, I was drawn to the screen like a moth to a flame.

What a voice! What an impact on American music! True, she and I may not agree on many things, but music is a common denominator. If you want to find a common ground upon which polar personalities can agree, talk music.

Since I’ve been working with Harmony House, my personal music venture with the mission to put music in the hands of anyone with a dream or a yearning, I’ve really been tuned into my own abilities. So Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Stevie Nicks, I’ve turned to you for inspiration. Especially you, Stevie Nicks. I’m an English major. Of course, I love your poetry, your lyrics. “Leather and Lace”? Great message. Marvelous symbolism. And “Landslide”? I can’t get the words out of my head, especially your lyric about “seasons of my life.”

I know all about seasons. I get it. Ironically, the seasons of my life have come full circle, and I’m ALMOST where I wanted to be when I first stepped into adulthood. Sometimes I go back and read my senior yearbook. I think about the young woman I used to be and the seasoned woman I am today.

Life hasn’t changed me that me much. But I’ve come a long way on my journey. I miss the people I grew up with. But we all change and go our separate ways.

I’m a people watcher. I’m a writer. Just about every character I’ve ever incorporated into one of my stories is an incarnation of someone I’ve met. Everyone I have ever interacted with leaves something with me. Gee, I even modeled a character after a waiter at the Red Robin restaurant in Murfreesboro after one visit.

That’s what I like about writing. Control. I can make anyone do whatever I want him or her to do.

Lately, I keep coming back to Stevie Nicks’ song “Landslide.” I think about the seasons in our life. People are like seasons too, you know. The people we meet, the characters we create, share the characteristics of the seasons. I think if we examine this analogy a bit more closely we can add depth to our character development.

Everyone has his or her own perspective about the seasons. That’s great. I think we writers should follow our own guide but stay true to the individual rules we create.

There are four seasons: summer, fall, winter, and spring.

For me, summer characters are the most difficult for to define. I see summer as static. Everything stays the same. Summer is romantic. Summer is predictable. Summer is fun. Summer is carefree. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a teacher. I can’t wait for summer. When I think of summer, I don’t think of the hot sun beating down on hayfields and children’s playgrounds. I think of summer nights.

Blame it on an experience I had in high school. I was never much into the dating scene. I had my own ideal of the perfect guy, and few measured up. But I did agree to go on a date with a very cute boy on a picnic down by the AEDC lake with a group of his friends. He was quite the gentleman, by the way

Even back then, being a writer at heart, my mind was drawn to the lights shining off the lake. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I still carry that memory. For years, I’ve tried to go back to that spot, to recapture that moment, but I’ve never been able to find the place. It’s just not the same, even though I know the exact location. It’s just not the way I remember it.

I think summer characters are romantic, but predictable. They are what they are, static yet fleeting. When I think of summer, I think of romance, romance novels to be exact. We can predict the ending, many times, but the story is so satisfying.

Summer characters remind me of comfortable journey, one that leaves us with a memory upon which we can conjure and relive whenever the need be.

I have an autumn personality. I can identify with characters who are cool on the outside, like a frosty morn, but with a core that warms up like the heat from an October midday summer sun. Autumn characters are both dark and light. They can carry the mystery of a Samhain night, or they can be the harvest moon among the darkness that shows people the light.

Autumn personalities are mysteries waiting to be solved.

Winter characters can be cold and detatched, or they can be warm and inviting–as can be the season of winter. It all depends on the personality of the beholder. Some people see winter as a time of death and decay, a frost-covered earth, icy and forlorn. Other people see winter as a time of hope, a waiting period for rebirth, a time for family gatherings around a warm fire, a warm cup of cocoa or spiced cider.

Winter characters are polarized. But what makes them that way? A turning point? Winter characters are projects waiting to be devoured, dissected, and discovered.

The most difficult characters for me are spring characters, spring personalities. One minute they’re bright sunshiney happy-go-lucky. Then the next thing you know, their personalities turn dark and moody like a stormy sky. Predicting a spring character is like predicting a spring storm. The radar gives us a warning, but spring characters move where they want, when they want, how they want. Given the right factors, a spring character can turn tornadic and rip up everything, or it can blow on by like a gentle breeze.

Spring characters run hot and cold. One minute the reader feels as though she knows the character, but like blackberry winter, the character turns cold. The reader is introduced to a stranger who keeps him or her guessing. We all know real people like that. And truth spawns works of art.

I’m no master novelist by any means, but I encourage writers of all levels to consider the analogy between their characters and the seasons. Perhaps analyzing this analogy can add a little depth to our character developement.

There’s nothing like getting to know a person intimately. And for a reader, the greatest hook is getting into a character’s head and feeling like you know him or her from the inside and out.

I don’t wanna grow up

I don’t want to grow up.

I’m a middle-aged woman with children, a steady full-time job, a new business venture, and a freelance writing business. Still, I have the mind of a juvenile.

I like it that way.

But I may have to tighten up the reins a little bit, especially if I get back in the saddle and continue my writing journey. I guess I’ll have to start with my blog. I mean, who’s going to take me seriously if I all I write about is chasing celebrities. I’m not the paparazzi.

No, perhaps I should focus on more literary-minded topics, such as agents, contracts, conferences, etc. That’s what I should be doing, but that’s not what I want to do. I like sparking the adventure in my reader. It’s okay to be a kid at heart. There’s a time and place for everything. I write to inspire, to make people laugh, to make people feel something. For without feeling, there is nothing left to say.

I ran into my dear friend Rebekah this morning. She’s the one who launched my journey by taking me on as a regular columnist in the paper she published. She’s fearless, possessing no qualms about approaching a source and asking anything.

See, we both like shooting famous people. Not with weaponry—with our cameras. We went on a few trips together to Nashville during GMA week and hung out at the Renaissance Hotel, gawking at every celebrity.

She attacked. I lurked, gathering the nerve to strike up conversations. But we both came home with stories to tell. Treasures.

I miss the hunt…the snag…the trophy shot…the adrenaline rush.

I try to surround myself with people who share my sense of adventure. I have a couple of writer friends at work who are literary groupies. They’re much too sophisticated to call themselves that, but I’m the one doing the writing here. I call it as I see it.

I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my groupie friends actually tracked down one of the most famous writers in the history of all of American literature—Harper Lee.

Brought the woman a milkshake to her assisted living facility. Was promptly asked to leave. But my friend has a story to tell.

Said friend also helped me follow my literary hero Rick Bragg during the Southern Festivals of Books. All I wanted was a trophy photo of me and him. Mission accomplished. My younger son, Michael, however ruined my story by accusing me and Bragg of being intoxicated. The first thing he asked was “Mom, who’s that drunk man you’re standing by?”

Okay, kid. Rick Bragg was exasperated–not drunk. He could not outrun me and my Harper Lee stalker friend through the back alleys and hallways of the War Memorial Auditorium. And I, dear Michael, had been carrying a professional camera bag, a notebook, a bag full of books, and a purse. I’m five feet tall. I was also out of breath and exhilarated. Can’t you see I looked a bit disheveled with good reason?

The dazed look in our eyes is easy to explain. I’m sure he was thinking, “Who is this woman, and what does she want from me?” And I was thinking, “Na-na, na-na, na, na. I got a picture of Rick Bragg —and You don’t.” Whoever You is.

But back to the story. I don’t want to grow up.

After a year off from promoting my writing, I’m hitting the publishing streets with literary feats in the running. I have a passion for helping others like myself find an outlet for their creativity, so I have agreed to sign on as a board member with the Tennessee Writers Alliance. It was through the TWA that I met Etta Wilson, who sparked my desire to write for young adults. I would like to pass on the torch that ignites the dreams of other writers.

I’m preparing to register for my Dallas ACFW conference, and I’m polishing two manuscripts. I have three more sitting in my brain. Two were spawned from killer titles, and the third is based on a late-night adventure a friend and I had while traveling through a small town, laced with mystery and intrigue.

If we hadn’t been in a silly mood that night, if we hadn’t been incognito, if we hadn’t been overzealous and in the red on the juvenile meter, I never would have come up with the plot. Actually, after I went home that night, I dreamed the entire story. Now it’s waiting to be written. A juvenile mind does have its merits.

I don’t want to lose my sense of adventure. The quest leads me to the story.

I take mental snapshots of the places I go so I can weave the experiences into the stories I write:  my trip to Roswell, New Mexico; my visit to Fishtail, Montana, to the world’s best little bait shop-gem shop-coffee house ever; my stop in the art district of Oklahoma City to wander into Galileo’s Coffee Shop. There are too many more to mention: Voodoo Village in Memphis, Elam’s Mansion in the Boro, and the Badlands of South Dakota top the tip of my inspirational iceberg.

But, alas, this summer I have to put on my writer face and behave like a professional. At least in public. And I can’t just talk about writing; I have to do something about it. It’s time to get my manuscripts to the agents and editors. I think I have my strength back. I think I can do this.

When God gives us gifts, He does so for a purpose. There is nothing in the world that makes me feel better than giving to the people I love. Maybe I can do for someone else what my writing mentors have done for me.

As an added challenge to my writing summer, I’ll also be taking graduate classes in English. I don’t want my professors to think I’m totally looney, so I have to be very careful not to spaz out. Focus, focus, focus. Focus shall be my mantra.

It’s only May 3, but already I feel summer coming on. I write best at night when no one else is around. And, like Gus on Psych, I have a super sniffer. I am very sensitive to smell. Honeysuckle and campfires spark my creative passion. Have you been outside at night lately? The fragrances are alluring.

Let the adventure begin. Yeah, I know. I’ve got to tone it down. Study. Do my homework. Dress professionally—save the tee shirts, flip flops and shorts for summer nights. Ease up on my Southern accent. Leave my yalls at home.  

But I shall always, always, always carry my notebook with me. Because no matter how sophisticated and cultured people appear to be, they’ve all got their quirks. They’re all characters waiting to appear in in somebody’s story.