“Everyone has a unique and beautiful story. We just need to listen and we will be changed.” – Casey Feldman, 1988-2009
Before her death my daughter, Casey, an avid reader and writer with aspirations to become a broadcast journalist, was the news editor of her college newspaper, The Fordham Observer. She taught me and her colleagues the importance and power of stories and how they connect us.
This power and connection was evident on September 12th when I participated in the Vermont Association for Justice’s (VTAJ) “Cornerstone Stories,” a TED style program in which speakers were asked to talk about overcoming failures or obstacles on the path to success. It was an incredibly moving and inspirational event for the speakers and audience. I know I was changed by listening to these stories.
Marilynn Skoglund was a “dirt” poor single parent with a child, living in a structure with only a fireplace for heat and often short of food. Never attending law school, she borrowed an outfit for her first job interview, and through perseverance and what she called “pluck,” is now a Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court. Born in Switzerland in 1933, Madeleine Kunin was the daughter of immigrant parents. Mary described what it was like for a woman in the 70’s to enter the male dominated political landscape, experiencing setbacks along the way. Through simply never giving up and believing in herself, she became the first woman elected governor of Vermont as well as the first Jewish governor in 1985.
When he was growing up, T.J.Donovan, Esq., made some mistakes that put him on the wrong side of the law. Through the encouragement of his sisters and his father who told him that “saints have pasts and sinners have futures,” TJ turned his life around. He graduated from law school and is now the state’s attorney for Chittenden County, one of the largest counties in Vermont. Remembering his past, he has enacted programs that incorporate compassion into the criminal justice system, programs that are catching the eye of others in law enforcement across the country. Nationally acclaimed author Chris Bohjalian described his Armenian roots and how the genocide of his people in the 20th century has shaped his life and influenced his writings.
Peter Shumlin was dismissed as stupid and incapable of learning to read and write when his dyslexia was undiagnosed in school. As Vermont’s governor today, he leads with compassion learned from the painful experiences of his childhood and fought to establish the first college in the nation for dyslexic students.
Jeanne Morissey, an engineer, struggled throughout her life trying to do things her way in a world that wanted conformity. She powerfully recounted her struggle with depression and some particularly dark moments, ultimately moving forward, realizing the need to lead an “inspired life and not a required life.” Jeanne heads an engineering and construction company that bears her name, providing a better future for some 26 Vermont families who have become her family. Mary Powell, describing herself as an “accidental executive”, recounted a number of challenging life events, including a miscarriage, the death of her mother and losing her home to a fire. As CEO of Green Mountain Power, Powell has become one of the most powerful women in the industry, as one of only five female CEOs of investor-owned utilities in the country.
Author David Blistein spoke of his battle with mental illness, reminding the audience that if we stigmatize others we are, in essence, stigmatizing ourselves. I spoke about the dark days, weeks and months following my daughter, Casey’s death. I ultimately gave myself permission to live and to try to enjoy life despite the loss of Casey, and to do so in a way that honored Casey’s life and memory, building a bridge from the dead to the living.
It was an incredible experience to listen to the stories and see how failure and obstacles can test us, but that ultimately we can overcome those challenges, be content and even achieve great things. Of course, I was reminded of the wisdom of the words of my 21 year-old daughter, Casey.