For Kerby Ann
"It does not require many words to speak the truth." — Chief Joseph
The journey from there to here goes by in an instant.
On my desk, I keep a collection of trinkets. Talismans of my professional journey. They have been given to me over the years by the people I have worked with. The people who have taught me, who have watched me grow into the person that I am today. There are beautiful shells and crystals. A Hopi storyteller. A penguin, a small elephant and a painted rock. They remind me of my journey, of the people I have met along the way and of the gifts that they have shared with me.
The other day my boss, whom I have known for over 25 years, came into my office and gave me a white buffalo. She is retiring today, after a long and rich career as a social worker, a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. A strong voice for those who have none in the darkness of this often unjust world.
Twenty five years ago, when I was a young graduate student, I could not have known the journey I was about to embark on when I made that phone call inquiring about the possibility of an internship. I was newly married and living in Ft. Bragg, a somewhat remote town on the coast of California, several hours to the north of the San Francisco Bay area. A graduate student needing someone to give her a chance. to take her under their wing and help her grow. One morning in late May, I made the long drive down to San Rafael for an interview.
Whatever nerves there were disappeared the minute she stepped into the lobby to greet me.
Right after college I spent a couple of years in Montana, working on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. As an east coast kid growing up in a Italian middle class family, I made the choice to postpone graduate school in favor of doing some volunteer work, altruistically hoping to make the proverbial "difference in the world". I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and after a year working in Great Falls, I found myself living in a trailer on a somewhat desolate reservation in south eastern Montana. It was an amazing experience, living in another culture, embracing the values and traditions of a proud people, hearing about the trials and tribulations that challenge everyday life, and setting straight the misinformation I'd been fed in an education system that sometimes creates it's own version of the truth.
It was exciting. It was challenging. And it was far from easy.
I learned a lot in those two years, but mostly I developed an enormous respect for this country's Native people, of their traditions and values and of the wisdom inherent in a culture that has lived in harmony with the land and not in competition with it.
Her arms were covered in silver and turquoise as she reached out to shake my hand for the first time. As we sat and talked in her office filled with Native artwork, I shared my experiences with her, telling her of my time on the reservation and the lessons I had learned. We shared a love for Montana, for nature and for family. She became my teacher, my boss and my mentor, and over time she became my friend.
Each time we sat together, I learned something new. About what it meant to be a social worker addressing the needs of the disenfranchised. To be compassionate and caring and understanding, even when I didn't understand. To listen more and talk less. And to be aware that, even when I thought I did, I didn't know it all. There was never a moment in my training with her when she said no. No you can't. No you shouldn't. No, it's not possible.
She encouraged me and supported me and challenged me to take risks. And through it all, she stood beside me, believing in me, even, though she may not have known it, when I didn't believe in myself. She taught me what it was to be a mentor, a teacher and a boss, and as I grew in my professional career, I modeled myself after her.
So today, on the day when she retires, I would like to say thank you. Thank you for believing in me, for supporting me, for encouraging me. Thank you for your wisdom, your honesty and your truth. You have taught me more than you will ever know and for that I am eternally grateful. I have been very, very lucky.
And so, my friend, happy trails. I wish you nothing but the best on your next journey. You deserve it.