I’ve written before about the pandemic being a portal (credit: novelist Arundhati Roy), and it’s becoming clear my portal is leading to my teenage self, in all her 1990s glory.
A combination of things have rattled some long-dormant memories over the past 6 months: My quarantine closet purges … a playful “two truths and lie” game during our recent Institutional Advancement retreat … and overall soul-searching in a time of crisis.
I spent one Sunday in September reflecting on some of the “magic moments” in my life … to help refuel myself during such a difficult year. Most of these moments involve teachers and mentors.
I hesitate to share this essay with the whole college. This is a post I wrote for my personal blog, and I poured my heart into it. But I think it’s important to share more about ourselves and the decisions that have brought us together on the same path through Virginia Western.
This is one of the most important conversations, isn’t it? What motivates us — and our students — to do our best, most fulfilling work? What do we truly want?
I make a couple of obligatory book recommendations … and I also reveal some extreme dorkiness … but I’m mainly focused on creating more magic, during my beloved Halloween season and beyond.
I started to believe in real magic in 1993, when my teenage dream came true at Disney World.
Up until that November day, I had obsessed about one, singular celebrity: actor Sean Astin, best known for his roles in “The Goonies,” “Rudy,” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
I fell in love with the 1990 movie, “Memphis Belle,” and immersed myself in all things World War II (including Big Band jazz), when all the cool kids were into Nintendo or Nirvana. I put Sean Astin’s magazine photo in a heart-shaped frame on my nightstand. I even sent him an invitation to one of my birthday parties. (*Cringe*) He was the one person in the world I wanted to meet, with all of my heart.
And after a few years of obsession, I just happened to walk past him at Disney’s MGM Studios park in Orlando.
My shy, 16-year-old self summoned the courage to approach him and his family. We briefly chatted about the 51 times (!) I had seen “Memphis Belle,” and my mom nervously snapped a photo that chopped off a chunk of our heads.
Was walking by Sean Astin in a crowded theme park a coincidence, or magic?
This was a defining moment of my life — one that gave me the confidence to keep approaching strangers for an eventual career in journalism (because after talking to Sean Astin, I could talk to ANYONE).
I’ve thought a lot about that magical coincidence lately, and the other defining moments of my life — the moments that gave me the courage and confidence to keep going in a particular direction. Some of them didn’t seem so important at the time, but looking back, I know they had an impact.
I came up with a list during a long walk:
In 1988, while on an airplane to San Francisco, my 11-year-old self wrote a letter to my Grandma, excited about my adventures ahead. She was so amused by my writing that she framed the letter and hung it on the wall next to her bed, where it stayed until she died in 2013. That framed letter — on black Scottie dog stationery — hangs in my home now.
In high school, I was invited to present my science-fair project during a regional event at Virginia Military Institute. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t really the science part I liked … it was the title I gave it: “There’s No Place Like Dung.” (It involved animal poop and fungal spores… you don’t really want to know more). After I finished practicing my presentation in front of my anatomy teacher, she sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, she said, “Have you thought about becoming a college professor?”
I was a sophomore at George Mason University, sitting in a large lecture hall, waiting for our film professor to return our first graded papers. I don’t remember the topic of my essay — but I remember professor Peter Brunette, the late, great international film scholar and critic — berating the class for our lackluster work. He went on and on about the poor writing and the lack of periods between sentences (!), while passing out our papers. He wasn’t even sure how some of us got into college. Then he singled me out … he handed over my paper and said I was the exception. (And I’ve never felt more immediately despised by a group of peers.)
After raising some hell as an editor of GMU’s student newspaper, I was given two staff awards by the editor-in-chief: “Most Likely to Make Deadline” and “Most Likely To Be Censored.” Which sounds very much like controlled chaos … and the very definition of magic, according to my latest obsession, The Witcher.
Years after graduating, while working at The Roanoke Times, our editor-in-chief spent most of a newsroom meeting dissecting some of my writing for a Valentine’s Day edition of our entertainment section. I was in my mid-20s, in a room with some colleagues who had been in the business for years. The editor pointed out the various lengths of my sentences, the rhythm of the writing as we read it aloud together. This came as a surprise … my writing was good enough to be modeled?
A few years after that, I wrote an impromptu review of Michael Buble’s concert in Roanoke. Except I wrote the review in the form of a love letter (remember my obsession with Big Band jazz from “Memphis Belle?”). Days after it published, we learned Liz Rosenberg, best known as Madonna’s longtime publicist, emailed my passionate review throughout the entire Warner Bros. company. Apparently she was very excited (and she also represented Michael Buble, which makes more sense). The only reason I know this is because one of our advertising reps was friends with someone who worked at Warner Bros. He seemed delighted to share the news with me.
There are so many lessons wrapped up in these moments, especially for many of us who suffer from impostor syndrome. When I look at them all together, I see some themes, including this one: Leaders who took the time to share encouragement and praise.
Too often we never know how much of an impact our work has on others. These were the moments when someone’s small action or remark helped shape the way I looked myself.
I’m sharing these moments not to brag, but to refuel myself during 2020, the year of neverending, demoralizing doo-doo.
I also hope it might inspire you to do the same.
I urge you to take a long a walk, or meditate, or whatever you do to think deeply, and reflect on your own moments of validation and support. What were the defining moments and memories of your life?
Then write them down … it’s quite the powerful exercise to distill them all in one place, like capturing lightning in a bottle.
Lightning in a bottle just so happens to be the cover art for “The Power of Moments,” the book by Chip and Dan Heath. I can’t recommend this book enough. I wrote about it in 2017, and how it impacted my work at Virginia Western. It could change your world, too.
“The Power of Moments” will help you think about how YOU can create some of that magical lightning with other people in your life: Your family and friends, your colleagues, students, even strangers.
How can you share the most powerful compliment — or radically candid praise, to steal a phrase from Kim Scott’s “Radical Candor,” another good book I recommend.
Which leads me to another magic moment, this one from one of my peers in college. Ali, a popular girl who seemed perfect in every way, wrote me a thank-you note after we produced “As the Continent Sinks,” a fun radio show about the lost continent of Atlantis. I found her faded note while cleaning out old files during the early quarantine months of COVID.
Ali wrote: “You are one of the most creative, enthusiastic and encouraging people I know! You have a unique way of making work fun, and I feel very fortunate to be part of your group!”
I immediately teared up — 25 years later, I needed to read her message of encouragement. These are my superpowers, distilled in two sentences. They were always there. I just sometimes forget.
Be like Ali. Spread your radically candid gratitude … help create those magic moments for the people in your life.
In August 2019, I was able to return a magical favor.
Sean Astin was the headlining celebrity at Big Lick Comic Con in Roanoke.
I immediately booked a “VIP” comic con package, which included a special screening of “The Goonies” at the Grandin Theatre and photos with Sean himself.
I splurged on fancy World War II-era hair and makeup for the occasion, because I knew this was going to be another magic moment.
Surrounded by my family once again — this time my Mom, husband and 6-year-old daughter — I met Sean Astin for the second time. We chatted briefly, posed for a couple of photos, and before leaving, I handed him a letter thanking him for that moment at Disney World in 1993.
I explained the whole story — about my love for “Memphis Belle,” how I actually wore a 1940s hair snood to Hidden Valley Middle School, how meeting him gave me the confidence-boosting rocket fuel to launch into orbit.
I have no idea if he ever read my letter, but it doesn’t really matter. This was full-circle magic.
During his Q&A at the “Goonies” screening the night before, Sean Astin mentioned some good advice from his dad, John Astin (whom you probably remember as Gomez Addams). His dad told him to consider every human interaction sacred. This seems exhausting, especially for a celebrity, but Sean seemed to lean into this advice. He showed such patience and grace with his fans during the comic con, and with me almost 30 years ago.
My own dad, Kimbro, was there when I met Sean Astin at Disney World. Dad would have been so tickled about our reunion in Roanoke. Not only has Sean grown up to look like Kimbro, but he is also the father of three girls … and he made a “gentle wind” fart joke at the Grandin event, which is a very Kimbro move.
Sean Astin visited Roanoke almost one year to the day Dad died. During a very difficult anniversary week, our family experienced a joyous moment that brought back so many cherished memories.
Was it a coincidence, or real magic?
— Stephanie Ogilvie Seagle, October 2020