Imagine this Madam Contest Chairman, ladies and gentlemen I was 22 years old and flying along at 40miles per hour, my skis were slicing through the sparkling water,  and then I broke the most important rule of water skiing – Stay on the skis!. 30 years ago this mixture of youth, speed and rule breaking literally pruned me down to size…… and when I left hospital 8 months later I bought my first bonsai, this one.

Tonight I am going to break the rules again – the ones which  permit only one speaker on this stage. For here and now there are two, and I ask you to hear us both. Our message is the same– no matter what life deals us, we have those around us who  prune and shape us. They are our gardeners and they can inspire us to be who we are.

Last year at the 5th World Bonsai Convention  here in Washington, the Japanese master of the art Saburo Kato shared his belief that a bonsai  speaks of the very essence of who we are.  I share his belief and so tonight, I will give my bonsai a voice.

To do this, I needed to be this tree’s devoted gardener. While the process of creating my bonsai is, harsh, when I prune and shape it, my motive is to love,  nourish, and challenge it, to bring it the ultimate expression of who it is and what it can say. I know I have achieved my goal because when I sit near this tree listen and I can hear it to say to me, “Yes, life has been harsh, but because of you, I am strong, individual, beautiful, and here and now, I want to be nothing else”.

The message is clear, no matter how difficult life is, our gardeners can inspire us to accept who we are. If, after that waterskiing accident, I denied who I had become, where would I be?  Well for one, I would not have changed my preferred sport from hurdling to wheelchair basketball. – and that would have caused a lot of headaches.

But I did not deny this. I do not deny who I am, because I have had my gardeners, those who have inspired me to able to say “Here and now, I want to be nothing else”.  Amongst these gardeners are my family, friends, my bonsai and one complete stranger.

This stranger inspired and continues to inspire me to be who I am, and how someone I have just met do this? Hear his story. His name, Edward.

Some years ago, I found myself sitting in an open jeep driving through the wilds of the African bush. Our guide,  Edward was  native to Zimbabwe. On day one of our safari, he had taken us  this close to elephant, lion, and buffalo. The excitement was mind bending so when I saw my first awe-inspiring majestic giraffe, I couldn’t stop myself. I yelled out, “Look a zebra!”. Soon after that pruning moment Edward stopped near a Kudu, which is a large antelope. He turned and told us that his family revered this magnificent animal. Then the unspeakable was spoken. One of the women behind me looked down her long colonial nose and in a patronizing voice dripping with condescension said, “Ohhh Edward, what do you say when you come across a kudu. Do you say ‘Hello Kudu – haha,’”.I sensed Edward’s discomfort as he turned to face the kudu, and he quietly uttered, “I beat my chest lightly, and wish the kudu a safe day”.

Wow!, Edward was Edward. He lived the message of my bonsai.. “be who you are”. He inspires me to do the same….and I’m still a rule breaker.

My friends and fellow gardeners, no matter how old we are, we have those around us who  either consciously or unconsciously, as in Edward’s case, shape us. They  prune us to this exact present point where you are sir, where you are madam, where I am, where we all are.

Tonight I ask you to listen to the voice of the Bonsai along with mine,   as we share our belief, “Here and now, want to be nothing else. Be who you are.