An Icebreaker speech for Panorama Toastmasters

People around us shape our lives more than we are willing to admit.  This talk is about just three of the many who affected mine.

When I was little, I would spend summers with my grandma, in Vyborg, north of St. Petersburg, Russia.  She would take me for long berry or mushroom foraging trips in the forest.  She fed me yummy things and she took me to paddle in lakes or to the gulf of Finland.  To this day, nothing makes me happier and more tranquil than a long walk in the woods and a sight of a quiet lake.  Trains remind of the trips to see my grandma.

As a kid, I was pretty good at math, so I joined a math club.  This alone shaped my thinking, where I went to school, and my career choice, but there was more to it than that.  I remember that one girl in the club, Katya, who was profoundly annoying.  She was always late for our club meetings and coming up with ridiculous excuses.  Among the rest of us, quiet, ruly, geeky kids, she would talk to everyone and ask them all sorts of questions.  After a year or so she left for another math club.  I saw her here and there over the years: math geeks form a close circle.  Then I met her again in college.  I was pretty antisocial back then, but she wouldn’t give up on me.  She would talk to me cheerfully, invite me to music  concerts and camping trips.  Eventually we became best friends, I even came to peace with her tardiness.  She just couldn’t part with whoever her previous engagement was.  You see, she had a gift of attracting good, sometimes understated, people and connecting them to each other.

When I moved to the states 13 years ago, she wrote to me: “Hey, Inky is in Boston.  You should hang out”.  I knew her friend Inky a little.  He was slightly bonkers, I thought, but I went to visit him in Boston a few times.  He visited me in Baltimore where I went to grad school.  We had various adventures together: bike rides in the arboretum, visits to botanical gardens, train rides.  Then, our trip to California went wrong.  Soon after that, I got married for a few years, and Inky, being bonkers, had a rule about excommunicating his female friends for doing that kind of thing, so we lost touch, and he moved to Vancouver anyway or some other place far away.  Nine years later, this past winter, Katya asked if I wouldn’t mind if Inky called me.  I didn’t mind, so we spoke on the phone a little.  “What are you up to?” he asked.  I confessed apologetically to reading a pretty bad Russian fantasy novel, the third in a series and enjoying it.  Inky started laughing: “You sounded just as guilty when you read the first one.  Remember, when I came to visit you in Baltimore?  You totally hooked me up on that.  I lost track of how many I read since.  And you know what, literature doesn’t have to be good to be good.”  We laughed.  Then we talked some more.  He was in Boston again for a couple of weeks, in June, visiting his parents. I stopped by for a weekend.  As we were chatting on Saturday evening, I noticed 6 or 7 of my favorite books on Inky’s shelf.  “I have those too, I said. Did you tell me about them?”  “No, he said, you told me.”  We talked about our recent reading and exchanged recommendations.  On Sunday, after a canoe trip along Charles river with his parents, we went to have a late lunch in Cambridge before my flight back to Philly.  As we were finishing it, Inky said, “I think I need to apologize for the past”.  “I am cool, I replied, you don’t have to.”  Still, we went back in time, starting with easy things, such as his stupid excommunication rule.  He apologized for withdrawing his friendship when at some point I reached out to reconnect. We talked about that California trip and both acknowledged how thoughtlessly we treated each other, when things went wrong.  I cried a little as I felt the grief over what I thought was a lost friendship going through me on its way out and away.

Fellow Toastmasters and guests, you have just briefly met my grandma, my best friend Katya, and our crazy friend Inky.

My grandma died almost two years ago.  At her one year memorial service, one of her friends reflected how whenever you asked her about the new person she met: a doctor, a friend’s relative, a neighbor, she would always say: “Oh, they were wonderful.  They know such and such interesting thing.”  And when you would tease her: “Surely not everyone is wonderful”, she would say, “No, not everyone.  Most people are though.”

Fellow toastmasters and guests, let’s appreciate the people around us and what they mean to us, and what we mean to them.  And let’s remember that the challenging ones could become our best friends and connect us to the world we wouldn’t have known without them, and a little bit of the good will and courage to acknowledge our mistakes would bring more love and light into our lives.

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