But in spite of my rule infraction, everyone had glowing praise, along with some constructive criticism, including the excellent advice to slow down. Having been raised in the Northeast, talking fast is ingrained in my persona but it’s a bad habit I am trying to break — and one of the many reasons I joined Toastmasters in the first place. On the positive side, my evaluator – a lovely woman named Barb – also complimented me on things like great poise, storytelling, audience involvement, organization, and use of props. And when the time came to announce the voting results, I won this:
Below is the original version of my speech, a variation of which I delivered last night in a much more conversational tone, e.g. at the very beginning I asked the audience if they knew the song, The Greatest Love of All, and if they’d ever had the experience of getting a song “stuck” in their heads. It also includes some material I eliminated last night in an (unsuccessful) effort to pare it down to a maximum of six minutes:
In the beautiful ballad, The Greatest Love of All, there’s a line that says, “Everybody’s searching for a hero. People need someone to look up to.”
There are all kinds of heroes in the world: men and women who put on the uniform to serve and protect us, whether in the U.S. military, the police force or in their local fire department.
But there’s another kind of heroism. I like to call it “Quiet heroism.”
Whenever I hear the line from the song, I remember how blessed I am because I’ve never had to search far to find heroes: they were in my own family, beginning with my mom and dad.
I don’t consider my parents heroic for providing a loving, stable home for my four older siblings and me – although the older I get, the more I appreciate my upbringing.
The early days: Mom and Dad with my older brothers Ralph (on mom’s lap) and Mark.
My parents are my heroes because they lead by example. They didn’t just go to church every Sunday, they walked the walk. Their greatest act of quiet heroism took place almost eight years before I was born yet it influenced my entire life, and still does to this day. And that is the birth of my second-oldest brother Ralph.
When Ralph came into the world a month ahead of schedule, my father had been working a medical residency several hours away in upstate Pennsylvania – far from Philadelphia, where both of my parents were born and raised.
They’d already had a healthy boy named Mark, and a promising medical career ahead of them. It had never crossed their minds that God might have completely different plans for their next baby, that anything would be different for him. And at first, all seemed well. After a speedy delivery, my mother’s OB/GYN announced, “You have a beautiful blond bundle of fluff.” And as family members gathered around to see the new baby, no one noticed anything different about him. Until a stranger entered my mother’s room while she was alone – a pediatrician she’d never seen or spoken to before – and told her in no uncertain terms that her baby was a “retard.” That for the sake of her husband’s medical career and family, she should put him in an institution lest he become a “stigma.” He even pointed to a tree outside of the hospital room window and said, “See that tree trunk? That’s going to be your son – unable to do anything but stand there.”
My mom – God love her – has always been feisty, strong, and independent. She immediately threw that doctor out of her room with the orders to stay away from her and her baby. When my father finally got to the hospital, my mother’s trusted doctor advised them that there are all shades of grey and that only the man upstairs knew for sure what Ralph’s future would be. They decided right then to come together as a family to help their son reach his full potential. And he certainly did. Ralph went on to have a good education, participate in Special Olympics, and hold a full-time job for 25 years at a local hospital where he developed a reputation for being an exceptional worker and a positive influence on everyone around him.
My favorite baby photo of my “big brother” Ralph.
All because my parents had committed an act of quiet heroism.
Over the next eight years, my mom and dad would add three more children to the family. Instead of giving into fear, they looked at Ralph as such a blessing that they knew they could handle whatever else God had in mind. Good thing. Otherwise Carolyn, Paul, and I would never have been born.
More examples of quiet heroism.
I grew up in a family of achievers. My brother Mark and sister Carolyn are both very successful attorneys. My brother Paul is a respected pathologist. Ralph exceeded all expectations and to this day continues to lead a full life. If success is measured by the amount of joy an individual brings to the world, then Ralph outperforms every one of us.
As for me, I knew my life’s purpose from a young age. For anyone who would ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my swift reply was always, “I want to be a novelist,” or “I want to be a journalist,” or “I want to be a writer.” I’d interchange the words but I made my career intentions crystal clear to anyone who would listen.
My mother nurtured my love of books by reading to me every day and buying me classics like Golden’s Fairy Tales and A Child’s Garden of Verses. As I got older, I graduated to the Nancy Drew mysteries and the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Although my father was a successful doctor, neither one of my parents demanded the same for their children. They just wanted us to excel in whatever field we chose to pursue. In my case, encouraging my love of reading and writing was definitely another example of “quiet heroism.”
Then when I was eight years-old, my cousins Maris and Al, who also took my career plans seriously, gave me a beautiful hard-bound journal for Christmas. (Read Maris’ inscription). After I wrote my first “novel” in the one they’d given me, I went out and got another blank journal and wrote my second.
Back in the day: Dressed in our Sunday best, my family celebrates Easter in Ocean City, New Jersey.
Well, I’d like to say I made a bee-line to success, given this solid foundation but unfortunately, adolescence hit me hard. My insecurities about my weight had been a lifelong issue. I wasn’t obese, but just chubby enough to be at the receiving end of kids’ cruelty, which fed my insecurities. But I studied hard, got good grades, and eventually graduated from Villanova University. During these years, I was always thankful I could come home to a close family that loved and supported me.
My parents and siblings, especially Ralph, were my quiet heroes.
By the time I graduated college, I let my insecurities take over. So instead of listening to the voice within, that knowingness that I was meant to be a writer, I listened to the naysayers. You know, those people who said writing wasn’t a real job; that I’d never make any money at it; that it was something to do as a hobby, not a career choice. Only very special, connected people ever made it in the writing and publishing industry.
What I didn’t know at the time was that advancements in technology and my own life experiences would eventually open doors that I never knew existed.
Fast forward to 1994, the year would completely transform my life and pave the way for my ultimate understanding of the phrase, “Write what you know.”
I’d been very frustrated because everyone else’s life seemed to be moving ahead. Mark, Carolyn and Paul had all gotten married and were settled into their chosen professions. Ralph loved his work at the hospital and was enjoying an active social life. And here I was, still single without even the benefit of career satisfaction even though I was working hard as a sales rep in the employment industry and had a great boss. A trained ballroom dancer, I was happily teaching group classes every Tuesday night in a little town called Pottstown, about 30 miles outside of Philly. I still lived in the beautiful home in Media in which I was raised. SIDE NOTE: Many people may snicker at this but in my family, you didn’t leave the house unless it was to go away to college or get married.
I had started a relationship with a guy two years before who had since moved to Florida and had been begging me for more than a year to join him. Of course, as much as I loved him (or thought I did), my answer was always, “No! I’m not leaving my family. My life is here.”
Until after my sister’s wedding. That’s when I started to think, “Why not?”
Given my family dynamics, I wasn’t sure exactly how I would make this happen without a lot of drama, but by this point I certainly had a big enough why. I secretly brought my goal to life by filling a photo album with clipped magazine images of Florida – beaches, palm trees, happy people walking along the sand, various landmarks and cities – all kinds of photos to help create the feeling of already being there.
But things did not go according to plan when I arrived in the beautiful Sunshine State. Turned out, the “platonic roommate” my boyfriend had told me about was actually his fiancée – something he never mentioned during our many conversations. To say my heart was broken would be a huge understatement. Yet at the same time, I knew there was a bigger reason for my move. I realized that while he and I were not meant to be, his role in my life was still significant because he was a catalyst for change. Without that, I might never have found the courage to leave my comfort zone and find my own way.
The DiGiovanni Family at my brother Mark’s wedding, 1993.
In a sense, “Ken” was another quiet hero in my life, although it would be many years before I’d credit him for that.
This all sounds well and good now, but believe me at the time these revelations were wrapped up in intense heartache – heartache I hid from everyone, including my family. In spite of everything, I had myself convinced they’d say “I told you so,” about the guy and beg me to move home. Defiantly, I kept it all in. In fact, I hid my feelings so well I forced myself to develop amnesia about the guy, to the point that whenever someone would ask me, “Why did you move to Florida,” his name didn’t even come to mind. I’d pay the price for hiding all of these intense emotions later.
Just before my selective, self-induced amnesia kicked in, I saw a book in my mind’s eye titled Water Signs, a novel written by me. It would be another thirteen years before I would think about it again.
“Write what you know.”
Fast forward to July, 1997, when two very significant events took place.
First, I’d taken the advice of the professionals who advised me I needed a writing portfolio. Remember, this was before blogging. The internet was in existence but not as prominent as it is today. It just so happened there was a new local paper starting up called The Happy Times Monthly. It was focused on sharing uplifting and inspiring news with readers. I thought, what could be more inspiring than Ralph’s story?
That’s when I wrote an article entitled, “A Little Down’s Syndrome,” – actually, I typed it out on my dinosaur typewriter, then Snail-mailed it to the editor of The Happy Times, along with this photo (use prop) of Ralph and me from October, 1995. Weeks went by without a word. I was almost convinced they hated my story and I should just give up on my childhood fantasy of being a writer. Then one afternoon, a girlfriend called me on the phone, so excited she was nearly out of breath. “You and Ralph are on the cover of The Happy Times!” she exclaimed. She’d been coming out of Whole Foods when she spotted it among a stack of other papers. Of course, she’d grabbed several copies for me and was on her way to my condo so we could celebrate in person.
The second significant event happened about a week later.
I’d been dealing with the ongoing problem of panic and anxiety disorder and although I was functioning, I wasn’t living life fully. One night I attended a meeting where I heard a speaker named Frances Fox talk about remote viewing and the power of the mind. I’d never seen this woman before in my life, nor had she ever seen me. Afterward, I shook her hand and complimented her on the speech, which was absolutely fascinating.
She looked me in the eye and said two things: “You’re still in mourning for your grandmother and she died over 20 years ago,” and “You have a middle brother, a handicapped brother. You’re feeling guilty for leaving him.”
Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.
My jaw was on the floor. Both of these things were true, although I was not consciously aware of them until she stated them out loud. The fact that a total stranger knew such personal things about me was jarring. But Frances wasn’t finished. Next she mentioned my panic and anxiety disorder. That’s when I started to cry in frustration that I had tried everything including exercise, meditation, aromatherapy, counseling – you name it – to get rid of the problem, with only mediocre results. No matter what I did, it was still there, haunting me every day like a black cloud hanging over my head.
Frances assured me, “Have just one session with me and we will solve it.”
To this day, that is the best money I have ever spent because that one phone session with Frances completely transformed my life. As promised, six months later I woke up one morning and for the first time in five years, my head was clear, my stomach was calm and I felt at peace. I knew in that moment, the black cloud was gone. And in spite of life’s ups and downs since then, it has never come back.
Frances was another quiet hero in my life.
But my book Water Signs was still over 10 years from becoming a reality.
Fast forward to January of 2008. I was sitting with a friend named Ann, another woman who is highly intuitive. I’d known her for eight years but for the very first time she looked at me and said, “Who’s Kenneth?”
A testament to the strength of my self-induced amnesia, I thought she was talking about my brother-in-law.
“No!” she exclaimed. “I’m talking about a love relationship you had many years ago.”
As she began to describe it in pretty accurate detail, my memory floodgates opened wide. I was suddenly bombarded with memories of this relationship I’d carefully locked away in my mind’s vault, to protect myself from the pain. My friend could not believe in all of the years she’d known me that I never once told her about “Kenneth,” the man responsible for my decision to completely uproot my life and start over in a new state.
But I didn’t quite know what to do with these relentless memories. So I decided to “write what I knew,” but just fictionalize it enough to make it interesting and protect the innocent. In late February of 2008, I sat down at my keyboard and started writing Water Signs, the book I’d envisioned in my mind’s eye
Ralph and me, having a blast at Carolyn’s party.
almost fourteen years earlier. It was as if Water Signs was divinely guided because the words just flowed through me. I could barely keep up with the stream of consciousness and never once had writer’s block, although I did pull out a few of my journals to help me fill in some details. At the time I had a corporate job, but as soon as I got home at night, I wrote for at least four hours. My weekends were consumed with writing and learning about the independent publishing process and social media.
My goal for completion was July 4, 2008 but I finished the book on June 29, 2008 – my parents’ 51st anniversary – just four months after I’d started. After editing, formatting and completing the independent publishing process, I released Water Signs: A Story of Love and Renewal in September, 2008.
I believe my first book was divinely guided for many reasons. First, it was a cathartic experience designed to help me finally come to terms with everything and move on. Secondly, it opened up a world of possibilities because of new media technology that enabled me to publish my own book and take it directly to my readers. Having to talk about my work led to many presentations both in person and on internet radio, which ultimately inspired me to create my own internet radio network called Writestream. Lastly, writing and publishing Water Signs led to a career in which I help clients bring their concepts to life through ghostwriting, editing, independent publishing and social media services.
My favorite projects? The memoirs I write, edit and produce for other quiet heroes so that their life stories can inspire others.
There’s another verse in the ballad, The Greatest Love of all that’s also worthy of reflection:
“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I’ll live as I believe. No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.”
Thanks in great part to the quiet heroes in my life, I’ve had the strength to live by this philosophy.