Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all."
~ Whitney Houston
(yeah, yeah and George Benson, too.)
I remember it like it was yesterday. A pianist began tickling the ivory for the introductory bars of a song. A woman tapped the top of the microphone and cleared her throat into it to be certain it was on. It was.
The music grew louder and readier for her accompaniment and, right on cue, she pulled her shoulders back, lifted her head up and began to sing. Up, up, up into the rafters went her voice. Loud, strong, deliberate. And dare I say it? Shrill. Periodically she'd take both hands and grip the microphone stand for emphasis and flutter her eye lids rhythmically. The song she was singing was a popular one, well known to most in the room. And I say that to say that we all had our own idea of how that song sounded on the radio or playing into our canals through iPhone ear jacks.
The reprise came and folks sort of shifted from glancing at each other to singing along with her. That encouraged her more which, to me, was kind of sweet. Once the final note came she was probably twice as loud as she was at the beginning, squeezing that pole even tighter and her eyes even tighter than that. She freed her right hand and threw it to the heavens and left it there when the song ended.
The crowd began to cheer and clap. Her eyes opened and a big smile spread across her face. "Thank you," she said in a throaty voice straight into that mic before spinning on her heel to walk back across the stage.
People can be so polite sometimes.
We both knew her and she was really likable so we clapped, too. More applause. A few people, mostly her friends, stood up even. And all of it was really sweet and everyone seemed pretty pleased with her performance.
Wait. I take that back. Everyone except Deanna.
"Yikes." After whispering that under her breath to me, Deanna raised her eyebrows and gave her nose a subtle wrinkle.
"Yikes?" I mouthed back. People were still applauding.
"Did that sound good to you?"
I swung my head from side to side and then behind myself. Deanna was a horrible whisperer. "I mean. I don't know. I thought it was pretty decent, didn't you?" And honestly, it didn't sound so good. But we both knew this woman and were friendly-ish with her. Though my sister and I always gave each other permission to speak freely, I'd taken the high road on this C+ ballad rendition.
"Um. She needs to sing her babies to sleep and that's it. That's my girl, too. But singing? Uhh, yeah. That ain't her gift, man. If we were closer, I'd let her know, too. Long before she got up there."
"Damn, that's cold, Dee."
"No, it's not!" she hissed. "Everybody's got some gifts. Singing just ain't her gift, man. That's real talk."
I shook my head and wiped my face. No one was more transparent than my sister.
"Kimberly, be honest. That's a lullaby voice. Not horrible but not nothing I need to hear over a whole room either." And any who knew Deanna can hear her saying this. Eyes twinkling with mischief and arms folded unapologetically. I kept looking around to make sure everyone couldn't hear our conversation. "Somebody need to tell that girl one day--'That ain't cha gift, pookie.' I'm for real."
We both laughed out loud and quickly covered our mouths in case people were listening. It was so true.
And so Deanna.
I revisited that conversation with her a few weeks later at my kitchen table. Her position hadn't changed. "See, me? My gift is creative shit. I'll crochet you a three piece suit, make you a quilt and help your kid blow everybody in his class out on a project like it ain't nothing. 'Cause that's my gift, man. That's my shit." I'm almost 99.9% sure that she was twirling a crochet needle in some yarn as she spoke those words. She was right. This was her thing.
Her shit even.
"I hear you, sis."
"I'm just sayin'. . . . I mean. . . I can do some other things pretty good. And that's cool. But my thing is. . . .why don't people use the gifts that are theirs? Why they insist on forcing something else and leaving the thing they're good at thrown to the side?"
"You're a nut."
"I'm serious. That song ol' girl sang that day was tolerable. Like, yeah, she could carry a tune. But she didn't need to carry it nowhere outside of her house. Unnhh uh. No ma'am." She curled her lips and gave me a side eye.
I tried to keep a straight face but then we both erupted into the big fluffy laughs that we always shared at times like this. Man, how I miss our kitchen table chats. And it's funny because embedded inside of some of our lightest conversations were such meaningful lessons, man. Like this one.
So that? That was something I've always held onto that I learned from my sister. She encouraged people to find their gifts and use them. Especially me and anyone who was close to her. And she never pulled punches it came time to let you know that something "ain't your gift, pookie."
Ha. "Pookie" was such a Deanna word.
I think I started writing more after Deanna began nudging me. "Writing is your shit," she'd say. And she'd always throw out expletives whether you liked it or not. I was used to it and actually found it rather endearing.
"I do love writing."
"You're a kick ass writer. You write well and you write fast. And what you write fast is the shit. See, that's because it's your gift. That and public speaking. That's your shit, too. Sometimes I'm like, 'How did she even think to say that?'"
I chuckled and recalled the time that she was chairing a retreat for our alumnae sorority chapter. Deanna had this bright idea that Kimberly would deliver the message at the ecumenical service. As in Kimberly, her sister. And for those who don't exactly know what that means, just know that it's like someone asking you to preach a sermon. When you don't preach. No where never.
"Say what?" I pushed back. "You sound crazy."
"Why not? It's public speaking and encouraging people. That's your shit. You'll be awesome." And I could tell that she was 100% serious. She sure was.
I gave that message that morning and it went well. As a matter of fact, it went more than well. Deanna was right. I settled into my gifts and used them. Instead of talking myself out of it, I leaned in. And it was good. It truly was.
A few years before that, I was asked to give the "charge" to a large group of debutantes at this enormous black tie event. There were over 500 people there not even counting the debutantes and I was sitting on the dais in a formal gown waiting for my part. And somewhere in the midst of the program, I could hear this metaphorical drumroll to my part. It became apparent to me that the "charge" was more like a keynote address. So, naaaaw, I wasn't the appetizer but more like the main doggone course. Which posed a substantial problem seeing as I had no key, no note, nor any address to give.
Hallelujah they paused the program for dinner to be served. And as soon as they laid that chicken a la something or other in front of me, I leaped up from that stage and ran to the bathroom with a napkin, my cell phone and an ink pen. I kid you not--I hid in a bathroom stall, literally sitting on the back of the commode so no one could see my feet and ball gown. Seeing as I was the big time speaker and all.
And then called Deanna freaking out.
"What am I gonna dooooo!" I moaned.
"This is your shit. Think about all of your experiences speaking. You got this, Pookie."
I was shaking and tearful. "This is just awful. It's formal and people have spent a lot of time and money to be here. I don't have a speech. I don't have anything. I don't. I thought I was just supposed to say good luck and that's it. This is so embarrassing. I'm so, so scared."
"Don't be, Kimberly. Just think of a quote or a central idea that's meaningful to you. Then build around it. You know how to do that.This is your shit."
And that was that. I slipped out of that ladies room and shortly after, was up at that podium. That keynote address was, quite possibly, one of the most memorable and well-received public speaking moments I've ever had in my adult life.
Yep. Because, as Deanna reminded me, that's my shit.
|on the dais at the debutante ball|
So the lesson I got from those experiences is that sometimes we have to pause and inventory our gifts. And especially align ourselves with the people who will push us out into the spotlight when we feel afraid to use them.
So I've actually applied this wisdom to many aspects of my life. And see, making a list of your gifts is an audacious task that can make you uncomfortable at first. But see, Deanna? She helped me shake that. And the beautiful thing is that once I really, really began to recognize what things God put in me to be able to do, her nudge gave me the courage to be intentional about it.
Something really cool happens when you do that. You feel more confident. You get better at those things that you already had a knack for doing. And you feel more like you are walking in your purpose. Yeah. That. Because Deanna thought that being the best version of you was like handing the world a big old gift with a shiny red bow on top.
That brings me to Whitney Houston. Yeah. Her.
Okay. So it turns out that when Whitney first hit the scene, she was a model. Like a really successful print model in magazines like Seventeen and other high volume periodicals. But all along, she used to sing in church or with her mom and her auntie. And any and all who heard young Whitney were mesmerized by her voice. Why? Because her singing voice was undeniably one of her greatest gifts.
Stay with me. I'm going somewhere, okay?
Okay, so check it. Later on, Whitney gets signed and becomes THE Whitney Houston that we all know and love. The one who took Dolly Parton's little snoozer song and made it iconic and the one who refuted the belief that rail thin girls couldn't SANG.
But. Later on, Whitney tried her hand at acting. She was in a few movies and even starred in one with Denzel doggone Washington. And honestly? It was mostly tolerable. Especially because every movie she signed up for had a component of her singing. And the singing? See, that's the thing we needed. Because that was her shit.
Yeah, it was.
So imagine if Whitney showed up at a talent show. A talent show for the whole world that would treat them to her talents. Perhaps she could model. I mean, that is how she broke into the big times. Or maybe she could do a dramatic monologue--I mean, she did do a movie with Angela Bassett and Denzel at some point. So yeah. What if Whitney showed up and did those two things and left the singing on the back burner. What if she put all of her energy into that because it seemed cooler and better than singing. You know. Because she didn't quite realize how important it was that she share her singing gift with the world. Yeah. Imagine that.
It'd be a shame, right?
I think what happens is that we see other people and their gifts and suddenly downplay our own. Or revise our own because perhaps it doesn't seem as shiny and bright as the one of someone else. And even worse--some have no idea what their gifts are because they're too afraid or too self deprecating to take that inventory.
But just think--what if you are showing up every day modeling and acting when your Whitney Houston singing voice is the thing the world craves the most? And needs most from you?
And so. This advice from Deanna that started as something silly ended up changing my life. I mean that. And I'm thankful to have had her crocheting right in front of me on a whole lot of days when I was in the process of trying to figure out my Whitney Houston singing voice, man.
"What if someone doesn't know? Like how does someone know when something is their gift?" I asked her.
"You feel it. You know it. Just pay attention."
And that makes even more sense now in the context of Whitney Houston. From the moment we first heard her sing, we all knew. Which means she did, too.
As a clinician educator, this has been game changing. Instead of trying to mimic what I think a great teaching physician is supposed to be like, I do me. I make 100% sure to bring my Whitney Houston to every learner I encounter while continuing to work and grow in other areas. I sure do. In the hospital setting, that thing is patient communication and pushing others to be great. So I frame much of what I do around just that. I go to the bedside with my learners to talk to patients. I give my all to those I mentor. I run to the most difficult patient encounters like a heat seeking missile. I think hard about my learners and come up with tailor made ways to help them go from good to great. Or great to hella-great. And especially to find their own Whitney Houston singing voice and then provide a space for them to sing every chance they can.
And you know what? Everyone has a better experience because of it. Me. Them. Plus, I'm so much better at being me than someone else, you know?
So yeah. I don't apologize for knowing who I am or for trying as hard as hell to use my gifts while I'm here. Since my sister left me, I do so with even greater urgency.
I'm good with people. I'm an effective communicator. I'm a
good great writer. I'm not afraid of public speaking and can usually find my voice. Just like Deanna, I'm innovative as hell and come up with ideas others haven't thought about. And then I come up with some more ideas after that. And more after that. I'm persuasive and a good leader. I'm emotionally intelligent and notice things. I notice people. I notice everything. And I remember shit long after others have forgotten the fine details. These are some of my gifts and I'm not afraid of them. And I go hard at using them every chance I get.
Deanna helped me with that.
So here's the question: What's your Whitney Houston?
I dare you to be so bold as to take a pen to paper and list your gifts. And I double-dog dare you to walk into your day like a boss with that list on a post it note in your head and in your heart checking off those boxes every chance you get to bless the world with one of them.
Because that's your shit. And when something is your shit, you shortchange the world when you don't share it.
And yeah, yeah people can acquire new skills and talents. They can. But like Deanna said, you feel it when you've stumbled upon one of your gifts. That is, if you pay attention.
Today is November 3, 2016. And I'm proud to say that today I sang like Whitney at the Superbowl. Head back and arms wide open. Sure did.
I just did it my way. And I know for sure that my sissy would be proud.
"And if by chance that special place that you've been dreaming of leads you to a lonely place, find your strength in love."
Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . the lyrics to this song make me think a lot about life with my sister.