The Heroes of Our Lives
I will never forget the moment I walked into that room for the first time. At 6:45am on a dark, February morning in Seattle, after scurrying from my car through the pouring, ice-cold-rain, I wandered through the Charlestown Cafe looking for something called “Toastmasters“. I had no idea what to expect. When I found my way to the back of the restaurant, there, in the corner of the room, sat four elderly gentlemen eating breakfast. The snapshot of the four of them sitting in that corner booth will live in my mind forever.
“Welcome!!” the tallest of the bunch said warmly, as I walked into the room, skeptically. “Are you here for the Toastmaster’s meeting?”
“Ummmm…Yes. I guess I am” I replied, realizing that I had just blown my chance to escape. “This is it?
It wasn’t what I had expected. The idea of practicing public speaking with a group of guys who had likely gone through World War II wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I went to the website looking for clubs in my area. I was picturing young-corporate-ladder-climbers who would help whip me back into shape, and these guys clearly hadn’t been on a ladder for more than 20 years.
It’s funny how sometimes life exceeds your expectations.
For the next half hour, before the others arrived, I chatted with Larry, George, Bob, and Vic, four friends who had been meeting every Friday morning for Toastmasters for the past forty years (well, Larry had just been coming for 20…) not realizing that they would change me. Larry, George, Bob, Vic and the rest of the “West Seattle Earlybirds” put me on the path I’m on today.
That was over fourteen years ago. Wow. Fourteen! I didn’t realize how much time has passed, until I typed it…
During the years that followed, I was welcomed into their stories. Larry, the youngest of the group, had been a Math teacher, and was always getting lovingly-teased about his politics. Bob, the former NASA Engineer, whose eyes sparkled mischievously every time he took the stage. George, whose daughter was the first female Toastmaster in the area, loved to cross-country-ski, was passionate about photography, and regaled us with stories of his days as a pen-salesman. And Vic. Vic, the elder of the group (I think he was in his mid-to-late-80’s when I met him), blew us all away. When I met Vic he was still an active cyclist, inspiring many in our club to pick up a bike and transform their lives. My favorite story of his, imprinted on my mind, was when he was doing the annual Seattle-to-Portland (STP) ride (202 miles, which he did every year in one day – most people do it in two). He told us one time, about half-way into the ride, he had fallen and hurt himself rather badly. Instead of waiting for the support-van to pick him up, or riding ahead, knowing he’d run into a pit-stop, he turned around and peddled the 100 miles back to Seattle. When someone told him, “Vic, that’s not a very reasonable thing to do.” He responded, “The most miserable people I know are the most reasonable people. I gave up reason a long time ago.”
I find myself getting misty-eyed, thinking about them. All of them.
Much to my surprise, there were no corporate-ladder-climbers in the bunch. The group was filled with smart, caring, passionate, silly, determined, successful men and women, bonded by their commitment to work on themselves and the fellowship they found in one another. In that room there were no titles (although there were some impressive ones in the bunch), no judgments, and no holds barred.
Sometimes whole chapters can pass before we can see the impact the people who have filled the pages of our lives have made – how they’ve changed us – as that group changed me.
How they bridged my confidence in myself.
How they made it safe to play full-out.
How they reminded me to be unreasonable.
What I learned, after seven years of Friday mornings at the Charlestown Café, is that anyone can make a life-changing-difference. You don’t need a certain title. You don’t need authority. You don’t need to look a certain way or have a certain amount of money. You don’t need to be anointed by the Queen. You don’t need permission. You simply need to make a sincere commitment to be your best self and support those around you to do the same.
Because you see, the heroes of our lives aren’t usually wearing capes or fighting bad guys, they’re leading us back to ourselves.