Homelessness is not the fast track to a successful life. But Liz Murray is celebrated as a street urchin who stepped over the broken lives and needles around 188th Street and Grand Ave. in the Bronx to make a joyful life.
Murray, born in 1981 to intravenous drug-users, was the subject of a Lifetime TV movie, “Homeless to Harvard,” and recently authored “Breaking Night,” the story of her 17 years on the streets and subways of New York, scavenging, begging and stealing her luxuries—food, heat and a place to sleep.
Murray, now 30, married, with a son expected in August, is also a motivational speaker. As she spoke last night to approximately 90 people at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, the idea of "living intentionally" took on new meaning.
Dawn Braasch, impresario of Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven, heard her speak at a bookseller's convention and co-sponsored her appearance as the final speaker in a series sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Women's Network.
Motivational speakers can be chancy. Often, even the most well-intentioned of them have said it so often there's a whiff of performance art tainting the message. Not last night. No whining, no drama. Murray lived too close to the edge for too long to indulge those luxuries.
She tells her story calmly, completely, with trills of self-deprecating humor. Here's an example. Murray completed high school in two years, then applied for a New York Times college scholarship. “I had never read the New York Times. I didn't know anyone who had read it. When I got to the interview at the paper, there was a huge plate of pastries in the waiting room. Everyone was too nervous to eat them, but I was hungry and asked if it was OK.
“The coordinator said, 'Sure, help yourself.' So I put them all in my backpack—breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she recalled. Once inside the interview room, she found a box of tissues, evidently for tearful applicants. She used them to individually wrap her her bonus meals.
You're probably beginning to get that acculturation was a work in progress for our heroine. But she knew that action was the key. “Six scholarships would be awarded based on an essay on overcoming obstacles and I thought, 'If I don't win one of these, I want to meet the winners”,” she chuckled.
She won. The Times wrote her up. Other media and help showed up soon after. Murray was thunderstruck. “A woman from New Jersey drove in to the high school. She didn't have much, but offered to do my laundry To. Do. My. Laundry. And she did, once a week, for the rest of high school.”
So the selfless eight year old who stayed up all night, parenting her parents and figuring out how to meet the next family hurdle—getting breakfast, say—was now 17 and getting help herself .
Murray spoke reverently about the importance of shifting—changing our life perspective. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't do,” she said..
Five Things She Learned to Transform Her Life
Love Works: “I loved my parents and they loved me. I was sure of that. They were sick, they had a disease. But they loved me.”
Intentionality: “It began to occur to me that making a survival plan was a good idea. Thriving was not a thought at that point.”
Help Is Part of Life: “They call me a bootstrapper. A bootstrapper? Without help I wouldn't be sitting here today. I believe no one thrives without help—Perry, my high school mentor. The lady who did my laundry. We need help.”
Avoid Entitlement: “People can't give you what they don't have. I learned to think about what I could do for myself. That was a million dollar lesson."
Give, Don't Take: “One day I just stopped shoplifting food—stopped taking, shifted to giving. I began to believe that I can have an impact on another person. Another million dollar lesson."