Laura Kate Whitney – TRANSCRIPT
Four years ago, my life changed direction. I left behind my friends, my career and my identity as I knew it, and along with my husband and our one-year-old son, I uprooted my world, packed it all into one, big moving big truck, and drove away from our home in Charleston, South Carolina, straight to Birmingham, Alabama. Everyone around me kept asking: “Why Laura Kate? Why are you doing this? Why are you leaving behind all you know and love? What does that new place have to offer?”
At the time, the answer was pretty straightforward. We would be moving to Alabama to be closer to our families. What I could not predict at the time though, was that, this new place would reveal my life’s most incredible story yet. For better or for worse, Birmingham would be our new home. Our family would plant roots here. We would buy a house and register to vote and find the quickest routes around the city during rush hour. We would raise our children here.
So, was I looking forward to my new adventure? Absolutely not. Because in all of my life spent living right here in the South, I could only recall ever hearing stories of Birmingham that involved struggle and inequality, and corruption, and division. And even as we prepared for this desirable transition for our family, I found myself really resenting our decision to move.
Today, I’d like to share with you my Birmingham story. I am not going to throw out any groundbreaking data or statistics that you could walk away with, but I will encourage you to think differently about the ways you tell your own stories. Because here’s the deal: I believe that in the end, all we have left are the stories and the memories that life has allowed us. And the way in which we captured those moments, will directly impact the amount of happiness and success we ultimately afford ourselves.
And so, my story begins. I was 12 years old. That horribly awkward and impressionable age when nothing nor no one seems to get it right. And I overheard someone say, to my mother, about me, in this sort of whispered condolence: “Don’t worry too much, she’s just a late bloomer”. What years of therapy have attempted to undo, was set into motion that very day.
As a child, I internalized being a late bloomer as being a total disappointment. And by the way, I did fulfill that stranger’s prophecy. Many of my adolescent milestones did arrive late. The training bra, my first kiss, college graduation, and perhaps, I have even overcompensated in some areas of my life just for the sake of over-achieving. Because let’s face it, no one likes to feel looked over, or left behind, just because they didn’t ripen in time. Any other late bloomers out there? Anybody else not really fitting the traditional mold? Anybody else taking their time realizing their true potential?
Well, you are not alone. And may I offer up this piece of mind: Just because we are late to bloom, does not mean that we hold any less value. I often tell my two little boys: “Don’t sweat it! Your time will come.” I have obviously thought quite a lot about what it means to be a late bloomer. A term defined as: “a person whose talents or capabilities are slow to develop.”
And here’s some good news: scientific research gives us plenty of tangible evidence that merely allowing time to run its course, has its perks. Our reasoning and problem-solving skills get sharper. Our outlook gets rosier. We get better at understanding ourselves, so we get better at understanding each other. Our priorities become clear. Our brains are better outfitted to see the big picture. We gain better control over our emotions. And that reservoir of knowledge accumulated over years of experience, it yields wisdom and acumen.
So bearing all these in mind, I finally asked myself: “Is my late blooming fate a weakness? Or could it be my best-kept secret?” I’ll tell you, the answer came not long after I moved here to Birmingham, the Magic City. A name granted to Birmingham just over 100 years ago, when the city’s population and wealth exploded, seemingly over night. This was the South’s brand new city, built with grit and steel by a few early settlers who quickly recognized the area’s unique alchemy was buried within these abandoned red-clay hills.
What young Birmingham managed to do was making something out of practically nothing. Her hidden beauty realized when the most common elements of her bedrock, were fused together to create something of tremendous value. But even before we started to unpack that moving truck, Birmingham was sold to us as a place that had used up all its magic at an early age. And at first glance, I saw empty neighborhoods, vast pockets of once grand buildings and historic houses crumbling alongside each other.
At first glance, much of Birmingham appeared to be a place fractured and faded. But as time went by, I began to develop a deep fondness for this place. I grew very curious. Something was resonating in and around Jones Valley and ever the story teller, I sat out to find the magic in the Magic City. And as I stepped out into the community, and as I started to talk to her people, and as I started to explore her hills and her curves, I began to see a reflection, a lightness. In the same way that I have stumbled through my earlier years, awkward and I am graceful. And without clear direction, Birmingham has stumbled through her early years as well.
And as of looking into some sort of magical mirror, I found an energy begging to blossom. A story weighted down with so much untapped potential. The irony of Birmingham’s nickname, the magic city, is that it suggests the very opposite of a late bloomer, right? But it turns out, Birmingham’s first act was not magical at all. It was just beginner’s luck. Where Birmingham once found its greatest resource was in the ground, dug up by cheap labor and benefiting an elite few. What we are mining today is our people, their creativity, their innovation. I think what’s magical in Birmingham is happening now, 100 years later.
Just look around. Birmingham is transforming. Birmingham is in full-bloom. As a society, we tend to put so much focuses, our focus and emphasis on this early years as we try to shape and define a person or place, with the hopes that they will achieve early, returning our investment in them quickly. But for the late bloomer, that true spirit is still forming and finding its way. Birmingham’s identity, much like my own, has been acquired through this slow awakening.
Folks, I believe in the magic of this place. I believe in the potential of a city that my two sons will ultimately inherit. And I have come to realize that the only way to transform my Birmingham is to transform myself. And in moving here, I’ve been given this incredible gift of stepping outside of my own story and into Birmingham’s. And what I see is a much, much bigger reason to believe in all that I’m capable of becoming. Better late than never if you ask me. Birmingham opened up to me. And she also opened me up, willingly, profoundly. Birmingham has offered me a renewed lens with which I can, with clear perspective, experience a story of tenacity, of perseverance, of renaissance. And I’ll be so bold to say that this simultaneous admission to our true nature is what connects my story to Birmingham’s. My city. The place that I am so proud to call, my home.
So this time tomorrow, I’ll be on my way back to Charleston, South Carolina, as a matter of fact, for work. And I’ll be willing to bet that I’ll run into an old friend who will ask why. “Why did you leave all these behind? What does that new place possibly have to offer?” Here’s what I think. Birmingham is absolutely full of struggle, and inequality, and division. And so am I. And so are you.
But for reasons that are different for every single one of us, Birmingham’s struggle is one that we just cannot ignore. And Birmingham, y’all, we give a damn! About our neighbors, about our civil rights, about our schools, about our landscape and the very ways in which we move around this beautiful, beautiful place. In Birmingham, we all have that enviable opportunity to be part of the story. E. E. Cummings said: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Well, here I am, Birmingham, here we are. Thank you.
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